By: John Elliott

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.

elliott airbase attack 010716-1

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.

elliott airbase attack 010716-2

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.

elliott airbase attack 010716-3

Troops take positions at the Pathankot base