P Chidambaram pulled no punches in criticising the Narendra Modi regime's policy on Pakistan. Even if the "surgical strike" was a political decision of a prime minister giving in to the public sentiment for retaliation against terror, the former home minister argued, leaders should have the ability to not only heed public opinion but, when required, lead it as well.
Chidambaram was speaking at the release of Choices: Inside the Making of India's Foreign Policy by former National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon. The book was released by former prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Taking a dig at the central government, he mentioned how boastfulness and shouting from the rooftops, a veiled reference to utterances by ministers, would not yield the desired results. And since one has to live with one's neighbour, it's better to go back to the policies pursued by former prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh of engaging Pakistan in a dialogue.
Chidambaram pointed out how going public about the "surgical strike" limited the options available to India, though he steered clear of going into the details, how it entailed losing control over the escalation ladder. Such actions, he said, won't prevent terror groups supported by a section of the Pakistani establishment from attacking Indian Army camps and that they, at best, only restore balance on the border. "In 2016, we have more options than we had in 2008," the former home minister said in a reference to the Mumbai attacks.
Chidambaram pointed out how the government's Pakistan policy has gone from one extreme, driven by over enthusiasm as symbolised by Modi's stopover in Lahore to another extreme of heightened hostilities along the LoC, infiltration and terror attacks.
In his speech, Menon claimed India had come closest to solving outstanding issues with Pakistan during the UPA regime, although he refused to delve into the details of the back-channel dialogue. "It didn't have to be like it is now," the former NSA said.
Menon also revealed how while unilaterally declaring the ceasefire in 2003, Pakistan knew India would agree to the proposition, hinting towards an informal understanding. Chidambaram explained how the ceasefire agreement had the desired outcome and there was a dramatic fall in hostilities from 2004 to 2014.
On Mumbai attacks
Calling the Mumbai attacks of 2008 a low point in the history of Indian intelligence and security setup, Chidambaram, who took over as home minister four days after the attacks, said the strikes laid bare huge holes in internal security.
He mentioned how by not retaliating against Pakistan in the aftermath of the attacks India gained enormously in esteem across the world.
Although Menon was emotionally inclined for retaliation after the attack, something he, too, later thought would not have had the desired effect, Chidambaram said the option to retaliate was neither feasible nor desirable at that time.
Both the former NSA and the home minister had an example in the recent attack on the Nagrota army base, which happened despite the surgical strike. Even though the scale of the recent attack may be different from previous ones, the brazenness and daredevilry continues to be the same, Chidambaram said. He explained how from Pathankot to Nagrota, most terror attacks seem to follow a similar pattern - of infiltration during the night and then an attack early in the morning.
Chidambaram claimed that after the Mumbai attacks, India was able to plug the chinks in its intelligence and security armour and that there was no attack between 2008 and 2013 which could be conclusively traced back to Pakistan. And that terror incidents during this period, including the Delhi High Court blasts and the ones in Pune and Mumbai, were the handiwork of homegrown terrorists.
Interestingly, Menon revealed how India remained suspicious of the US in the aftermath of the attack. He explained that David Headley was the primary reason for this suspicion. Nobody knew when he stopped working for the US agencies even as he was also working for the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and the ISI, and how much he told the US.
Chidambaram claimed that the UPA's policies brought relative calm and peace to the valley for several years. All of that lies shattered now because of the "unacceptable and unethical" coalition between the PDP and BJP in the state.
Reminded of the 2010 unrest, he lay the blame at the door of the then state government, calling it an "incompetent government led by a well-intentioned young man Omar Abdullah". The UPA government, he said, was caught by surprise and it was not ready to handle stone pelters, something that it managed to do in subsequent years.
Accepting that the UPA government too made mistakes on Kashmir, the former home minister pointed to the failure to not follow up on the three interlocutors' report as the biggest one.