When Narendra Modi was elected India’s prime minister, the main hope was that he would transform the muddled and inefficient way that many of the country’s institutions and organizations are run. Economic reforms, which dominate media and parliamentary debate, are also important, but Modi was primarily seen as a capable regional politician and leader who could wreak administrative change nationally.
Twenty months after last year’s landslide election victory, his failure to make significant changes was graphically demonstrated by a terrorist attack last weekend on an Indian Air Force base at Pathankot in the state of Punjab.
The base was not properly protected and defended against such terrorism, despite being just 25 kms from the border with Pakistan, and the response by security forces was muddled and badly organized. There are also suggestions that India’s border paramilitary forces may have been involved in drug smuggling from Pakistan that was linked with the terrorists.
The event threatens to undermine Modi’s more innovative approach to foreign affairs that led him on Christmas Day literally to drop in on Pakistan prime minister in Lahore for a few hours when he was flying back to Delhi on from Russia and Afghanistan. Though sourly criticized by the opposition politicians for being more a photo-op than measured diplomacy the visit, which was the first by an Indian prime minister to Pakistan for 11 years, could potentially help to improve the two countries’ tortuous relationship.
Ajit Doval with Narendra Modi
The attack is seen in India as an attempt by extremists, probably supported by Pakistan’s military and ISI secret service, to undermine progress that the Modi visit might generate. It coincided with an attempted raid by gunmen on the Indian consulate in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of Mohammad), an Islamist group close links to the Pakistan military, is believed to have been responsible and, significantly, Pakistan has not tried to deny that the terrorists crossed from its territory into India.
The Pathankot attack began on Saturday January 2 after six terrorists had crossed the border in an area used for decades by drugs and other smugglers and, in the 1980s, by Khalistani (Punjab independence) fighters trained in Pakistan. They broke into the air base, which was not equipped with protection against terrorism, in one case reportedly climbing and swinging in from trees on the 24-km perimeter. Border patrols and thermal imaging were inadequate and the initial police responses were confused and slow. Floodlights were not working in some areas and buildings are located against perimeter walls, making access easy.
Complicating the story, the India Today website has reported suspicions that arms and ammunition used by the Pakistani terrorists were part of a drug consignment that was concealed by smugglers, and that the terrorists crossed the border separately using the same route, possibly with the connivance of Indian officials.
Troops take positions at the Pathankot base
Criticism has built up over the last two or three days, especially on social media, blaming Ajit Doval (above), the national security adviser, who is a former spy chief and one of Modi’s most trusted and empowered officials. Based in the prime minister’s office with executive authority for security (as opposed to just an advisory role), he was in charge of the response and claimed it an intelligence success just two days into the three- or four-day operation. The buck stops with him before it reaches the prime minister.
The sharpest and most targeted criticism has come from Ajai Shukla, a former army officer and now one of India’s leading defense journalists and commentators. Writing in the Business Standard on January 5, he said “National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval’s inept handling has transformed what should have been a short, intelligence-driven, counter-terrorist operation into something that increasingly seems like a debacle.”
At the end of a discussion on India Today Television last evening the anchor, Karan Thapar, concluded that the response had been handled “ineptly” – none of the former generals and analysts on the program disagreed. Manoj Joshi, a leading commentator, calculated there had been five serious incursions and terrorist raids in the area since 2013, the last just six months ago, but security had not been improved.
Manohar Parrikar, India’s defense minister, who was not in charge of the operations, seemed uneasy and ill-prepared when he (not Doval) was paraded at a media conference on January 5.
He even said that five of the Indian casualties had died because of “bad luck.” They were members of the low-key Defense Security Corps (DSC), made up of retired armed forces personnel who guarded the base. Their “bad luck” was that they were shot by terrorists firing into buildings. An officer in the crack National Security Guard (NSG) died while handling a dead terrorist’s unexploded grenade. There has been criticism – by Shukla and others – that Doval flew in 160 NSG commandos with little Punjab experience to lead the attack on the terrorists instead of drawing on 50,000 army troops stationed nearby.
Pathankot is significant not just for India-Pakistan and defense reasons but because it illustrates how appallingly so much of the country’s government agencies work. It smacks of the jugaad (fix it) and chalta hai (anything goes, or it will all be alright on the night) approach that I highlighted as a serious national failing in my book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality.
Modi has told the defense establishment that it needs to shed its “chalta hai” approach, but he has failed to push through changes there or elsewhere.
Modi’s Santa Claus type appearance in Lahore on Christmas Day built on a rapprochement between the two countries that first appeared when he and Sharif were photographed chatting at the opening of climate change negotiations in Paris on November 30.
This began to unravel blockages to talks that had been caused both by both countries. A week later, the foreign secretaries and national security advisers met on neutral ground in Bangkok. Overall this marked an attempt by Modi to reverse a belligerent and aggressive stance he and Doval had adopted a year earlier.
Now they have to decide whether talks planned next week between their foreign secretaries should go ahead. India’s foreign ministry spokesman, Vikas Sarup, said this afternoon that the government has asked Pakistan to take “prompt and decisive action” against handlers of the attack. “The ball is in Pakistan’s court. We are waiting for Pakistan’s action on actionable intelligence… we are not giving any time frame… prompt means prompt,” he said.
“Prompt and decisive action” are the words that Sharif has also used, saying it would happen. But the military and not the politicians call the shots in Pakistan, so action is not certain.
India’s first priority however should be to equip sensitive bases against terrorists, and to force the somnolent defense establishment and security forces literally to smarten up.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, can be found at the bottom right of Asia Sentinel’s home page