After 2 years of disappointing policies which didn’t meet the extremely high expectations set by Modi, he finally plays the right cards. Modi’s security policies can be largely credited for making him popular amongst the masses and gaining their trust back. By completely changing his foreign policy towards Pakistan, India’s neighbouring country, he was able to convey the message to Indians (and Pakistan) that terrorism would not be overlooked in Modi’s India. Modi was labelled the hero who had finally used hard power against Pakistan. Although his economic and socio-cultural policies have created a divide amongst the constituency, there were fewer protests against the surgical strike in 2016 and the Balakot airstrike in 2019; going against Modi for such policies would imply defending terrorism and being deemed as anti-nationalist.
Thus, Modi found the perfect spot where he could gain support from some of his critics as well. Yet, these praises could only last for so long. The amendment of Article 370 brought back the criticism and the protests. However, most of the reproach was not directed towards the Bill itself but was largely due to the lack of a humanitarian approach to deal with the aftermath of the amendment as Modi went on to impose a lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir that lasted for almost 7 months.
Modi goes for a power move: The surgical strike
It’s no secret that India and Pakistan don’t have the warmest relationship especially when it concerns the disputed region of Kashmir. Having fought three wars in the second half of the 20th century, the governments of both countries had engaged in diplomatic negotiations during the first decade of the 21st century. Terrorism in India, however, continued and so did the debates concerning the financial connections between the Pakistani government and the militant groups. But Modi decided to turn the tables around on 29th September 2016 when he commanded the Indian paramilitary troops to conduct a surgical strike across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir against suspected militant launch pads in Pakistan administered Kashmir. This was in retaliation to the attacks by Pakistani militants in the Indian army base, Uri, 11 days prior to the surgical strike as well as the militant attack in the Pathankot military base earlier in 2016. Pakistan however initially denied that such strikes were conducted and stated that “two of its soldiers were killed in cross-border shelling”.
Contrary to popular belief, India had previously carried out surgical strikes in Pakistani territory as well during the Congress government’s rule in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013. Congress went on to say that unlike Modi, they did not feel the need to publicise such an event (so much so that even a blockbuster Bollywood movie was released based on the events a few years later). Such a move by Modi, like it or not, is true to his nature. He wants the audience to perceive him as the action taker and a tough leader. In the span of just a few hours, Modi had completely altered his foreign policy towards Pakistan.
Now, this was not the case in the first two years of his term in office where he had followed the traditional Indian diplomacy of non-alignment and focused on using soft power. Modi had not only initiated better relations with Pakistan but the rest of the SAARC nations as well, inviting them to his swearing-in ceremony back in 2014. But 2016 changed everything. Previously, India had never used such proactive or hard-lined diplomacy for many reasons. Isolating Pakistan was nearly impossible without the support of the USA and China which were Pakistan’s allies. China had always backed Pakistan in the United Nations Security Council as well, making it tough for India to maintain control over Jammu and Kashmir. This is one of the reasons that India was fighting for a seat in the UN Security Council along with the fact that it had grown in economic and geopolitical relevance in the past two decades. The other aspect was that previous Indian governments had never really prioritised building diplomacy in the SAARC region.
The surgical strike against the Pakistani militants as well as publicising the event changed Modi’s policies significantly from his previous strategy of international cooperation. By using the Doval Doctrine as his guide, Modi decided to take on an offensive-defensive approach. To show his tough character and the fact that terrorism would not be tolerated anymore, Modi also pulled out from the 19th SAARC summit to be held in Pakistan and his UN representative referred to Pakistan as the “Ivy League of terrorism” in the United Nations. The surgical strike in 2016 not only marks the end of “strategic restraint” towards Pakistan but it is also a forewarning of what was to follow in 2019 with the Pulwama attacks and Article 370.
It can be argued that by focusing more on security, foreign policy and socio-cultural issues, Modi was diverging the attention of the population from the economic issues that had started building up in the country, especially post Demonetisation and GST. Instilling patriotism and nationalism amongst Indians had never been easier and Modi used this to his advantage to portray himself as the greater ‘hero’ of India. Looking back at Manmohan Singh and his ways of conducting diplomacy, it seems that one thing that he lacked (which Modi clearly didn’t) was a good PR team. Many policies or actions that Modi has taken throughout his first term have been similar to what the Congress government implemented or what it aimed to achieve. They too carried out surgical strikes and pursued the implementation of the GST. But the opposition had been strong. To Modi’s advantage, however, the BJP majority in the Lower House of the Parliament along with his inherent characteristics of a showman has overshadowed the achievements of the previous government in the eyes of a majority of the population.
Abandoning diplomacy: The Pulwama Attacks
After the surgical strikes in 2016, there was no turning back for Modi. Now, he had to maintain a hard-line approach to terrorism. Thus, when an Indian origin suicide bomber, allegedly linked to the Pakistani terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), drove a vehicle into 78 Indian vehicles carrying paramilitary police and killing 40 of them on 14th February 2019, citizens on both sides of the border were waiting for Modi’s next move. Considering the surgical strike in 2016, it was expected that Modi would take a step equally or more aggressive than before. This was also a crucial time for Modi as India was preparing for its next General Elections in April and May 2019. Any move that Modi took then, would be deeply scrutinised and analysed to test if he ‘deserved’ a second term in office.
Modi gave a free hand to the Indian military which then sent 12 Mirage 2000 jets of the Indian Air Force into Balakot on 26th February 2019. The fact that the airstrike was carried out in a town in Pakistan and not Pakistan administered Kashmir sent a loud and clear message to the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan. The rationale that the Modi government used to carry out the strike was that they had received credible intel that terrorist attacks in many parts of the country were to be carried out by JeM in the following weeks and thus, this was a ‘non-military pre-emptive strike’ as a form of self-defence under the UN Charter (Article 2(4)) along with the condition of proportionality to avoid any civilian causalities.
On 27th February, one day after the Balakot airstrikes, the Pakistani government claimed that its warplanes had taken down an Indian aircraft with its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman along the de facto Kashmir border; he was then released the following day as a “goodwill gesture”. However, the Indian Air Force denied these claims and stated that the Pakistan warplanes had not crossed the border and the attacks they had carried out were conducted on ’empty fields’. While this issue is still disputed, both sides claim that they took active approaches to deal with the situation. Imran Khan also attempted to threaten Trump that their Afghan Peace talks would be at threat if Pakistan did not garner any support from the US. But to Imran Khan’s dismay, neither Trump nor his correspondents outright condemned India for the airstrike. This also shows to go the extent of international mediation that used to happen prior to 2019 over Kashmir.
Additionally, Modi went on to use his soft power to not only retaliate against Pakistan but also prevent global criticism. First, he removed Pakistan from India’s list of ‘Most Favoured Nation’ which granted Pakistan certain benefits when it came to trade. Second, Modi’s Ministry of External Affairs reported to envoys of US and China amongst 25 countries about the happenings as well as worked closely with the Financial Action task Force to shift the blame to the Pakistani government for not managing terrorist activities within the country. Third, even after the attack in Balakot, envoys of 12 nations were contacted to let them know about the attack. By dragging Pakistan to the International Court of Justice, Modi persisted in isolating Pakistan in the international sphere. This also further displays the role of the international players in regional matters and the importance he gave for diplomacy in maintaining geopolitical power.
In many ways, this incident was an indication of what was to come in Modi’s second term. After the attack, Modi proclaimed himself as the ‘chowkidar’ or ‘watchman’ of India and he used this slogan throughout the 2019 campaign. Foreign policy and security would evidently be prioritised as Modi, like any other leader, realised that policies on security garner support far more easily than economic or socio-cultural ones.
Modi 2.0 holds no restrains: Article 370 Amendment
The attacks in Uri and Pulwama provided the Modi government with sufficient ground to voice its concern over the security of India due to the Kashmir dispute. By using the slogan of ‘chowkidar’ or watchmen throughout his 2019 election campaign, Modi insinuated that security would be a top priority to the Modi government. Thus, not long after he was re-elected as the Prime Minister, Modi announced the amendment of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution regarding the special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5th, 2019 which consequently made Article 35A of the Constitution obsolete.
Prior to the announcement, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was granted special status which was to be a ‘temporary provision’ under the Indian constitution since 1954. Article 370 stated that the Indian parliament required the approval of the state legislature of Jammu and Kashmir if it wanted to implement any law to the state barring those concerning “defence, foreign affairs, communications, and ancillary matters”. Initially, under a presidential order, the government amended the Clause 3 of the Article 370 and changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir from “Constituent Assembly’ to a “Legislative Assembly” thereby revoking the rights of the state to have its own Constitution. However, since this was a Presidential order, it could only go into effect if the Bill was passed by both the Houses of Parliament. The Upper and Lower Houses of the Indian Parliament voted in favour of the Jammu and Kashmir (Reorganisation ) Bill of 2019 which took away Jammu and Kashmir from the status of a state. Now Jammu and Kashmir would be one union territory (directly administered by the central government) and Ladakh would be the other. While the former was to have a legislature, the latter wouldn’t. Due to the amendment, Article 35A of the constitution, which had previously allowed Jammu and Kashmir to define a “permanent resident”, also became redundant. Article 35 A also determined if a resident in the state could apply to certain jobs, own private property and receive specific welfare benefits.
The reason that the government gave for this amendment was to curb the issues pertaining to terrorism and militancy that the (now) union territory had been dealing with for decades. The status of a union territory also gives the central government more control over Kashmir and its borders. It went on to state that from 1990 to August 4th, 2019, there had been 70,000 instances of terrorist activities while 41,861 Indian soldiers had been killed in the crossfires. Moreover, the Modi government also stated that Article 35A had proven to be a barrier for investments as non-residents could not own property; it also created high levels of youth unemployment. Article 35A also removed the permanent resident status of a woman if she married outside the state and restricted her right to inherit property. Apparently, the locals in Ladakh had also been demanding for a change in Ladakh’s status to that of union territory for a long time now.
Modi knew that such a measure would not be taken well by the citizens of Kashmir. Thus, the night before the announcement, he imposed restrictions in Srinagar (summer capital of J&K) under Section 144 which banned people from conducting public meetings or rallies. Public movement would also be restricted while all educational institutions were closed down. The constant use of this article would be observed by the masses for months to come not just in Kashmir but throughout the country once the CAA would be introduced. Matters became worse as the government used the Public Safety Act (PSA) to arrest 662 individuals that permits the detention of people without a right to trial for two years. Along with a lockdown, telephone and internet lines were shut down and prominent political leaders in the Union Territory were under house arrest. Social media websites amongst several others were blacklisted for 7 months. Although the internet was restored eventually in January 2020, people could only access 300 websites at 2G internet speed.
International attention concerning the humanitarian situation of the crisis was raised but not regarding the amendment to the Constitution itself because the Modi government had done so legally under domestic as well as international law. Yet, the international pressure was not sufficient to instil any change of emotions in Modi. This was a major blow to the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as the control over the Union Territory also implied greater monitoring of the Pakistan administered Kashmir.
The Modi government stated that since August 5th, five locals had joined militancy on average every month as compared to the average of fourteen who did prior to the amendment. Now, although this is an achievement in terms of security, what Modi had created was an extremely controlled environment with restrictions on the freedom of speech and the placement of an extensive army in the state. Modi has not only angered Kashmiris but to a certain extent, also the Hindu population of Jammu who had previously supported Modi. In January, the government also introduced a new Domicile rule in J&K permitting people from all over India to apply for jobs in the public sector along with the police force as long as they fulfil certain criteria. As restrictions are reduced, it is uncertain whether the rate of terrorism will decrease over time. Moreover, the increase in investment that Modi had promised has also not arrived yet. Obviously, the unstable political environment would not attract a lot of investors. But the other issue is that most of the region is hilly and does not grant enough access to land for setting up factories; economic activity had stalled for decades before Article 370 even after government incentives.
Modi’s power move only indicated the Bills he could only pass these bills because of the majority he held in the Lower House of the Parliament and the support he had in the Upper House; such Bills would have definitely faced hurdles if he tried this in his first term (also reducing his chances for re-election). For many, the event threatened the idea of democratic representation because the opposition had become futile with insufficient strength to block his Bills.