Pathankot first big challenge to Modi’s new Pakistan policy

New Delhi: Exactly a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised India by dropping in on Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, comes the first big challenge to his new peace initiative with Pakistan. Imagine if the terrorists had succeeded in blowing up a Mig-21 or a Sukhoi at the Pathankot Indian Air Force base?

They failed — the fact that one of the four terrorists was killed while scaling the wall of the air base shows that the guards deployed there were alert. They took casualties but successfully foiled the attack, keeping the planes and other assets safe.

This assault on the Pathankot base follows a fixed pattern that watchers of India-Pakistan relations are wearily familiar with: every major diplomatic overture for peace is preceded or quickly succeeded with a major terror attack on Indian soil, designed specifically to put a spanner in the works. In Punjab itself, just five months ago, in July 2015, for example, the excitement at Uffa had barely died down in Delhi when a police station in Gurdaspur was attacked by cross-border terrorists.

The big strategic question raised by the Pathankot attack is clear. As National Conference leader and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted, “That was quick. Here’s the first major challenge to the PM Modi’s bold Pakistan gambit.”

Congress leader and former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh too immediately made the obvious link with the peace process, saying he was “sad that this happened after some efforts were made to restore peace with Pakistan.”

For a government which effectively ended its policy on no talks without prior movement on terror and bypassed the red-lines it had set for Pakistan with the new reach-out to Sharif, the challenge is more acute than usual.

Related to this are some key concerns. First, the Pathankot air force base is nearly 50 kilometres from the International Border. Like in Gurdaspur, we are now seeing infiltration from the settled border, not just the Line of Control in Kashmir. The expansion of terror outside of Jammu and Kashmir and the linked attempt to revive it in Punjab offers deeper challenges.

Second, the fact that Gurdaspur’s Superintendent of Police, Salwinder Singh could be kidnapped on the Jammu-Pathankot highway on Friday, barely five months after the district suffered a major terror attack, raises serious questions about the Punjab Police and its readiness.

Third, at a big-picture level, the risk of talking to Pakistan was always known: that someone on the other side who wants talks to fail will mastermind attacks in India. The challenge for BJP now, as Omar Abdullah tweeted, is to sidestep its previous “terror & talks can’t go together” & insulate the Indo-Pak dialogue from such attacks.”

For now, Home Minister Rajnath Singh has provided a holding response, saying “Pakistan is our neighbour and we want peace, but any terrorist attack on India will get a befitting response.”

The big question for 2016 is how long New Delhi can stay the course on Pakistan if provocations continue.

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