The assault on the airbase was a colossal and collective failure.

Pathankot attack has put a question mark on Modi’s administrative and diplomatic competence
Photo Credit: Ministry of external affairs

The year 2016 has started on a disastrous note for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The dastardly assault on the Pathankot air force base by raiders from across the India-Pakistan border has badly exposed his government’s vulnerability on several fronts, and simultaneously raised question marks on his administrative competence, diplomatic astuteness and political muscle.

Although the Punjab police, the security forces and the intelligence agencies are now busy passing the blame, it’s clear that this was a colossal and collective failure of the security establishment across state, central and military institutions. How could a group of armed militants from Pakistan cross deep into Indian territory, reportedly by means of the same tunnel route that was used during the terror strike in Gurdaspur last July, without meeting any resistance from our border forces or the Punjab constabulary? The bizarre narrative put out by the media – that the terrorists roamed around the Punjab countryside for 24 hours after carjacking a local taxi, killing its driver, and abducting the Gurdaspur police superintendent with his friend and cook – seems straight out a B-grade Bollywood action thriller.

It is bad enough that a prize military installation close to the border like Pathankot airbase had such poor security protection. But what is more inexplicable is the seeming ease with which the terror squad managed to enter the premises and engage in a gun battle for days, leaving seven security personnel dead and two dozen injured, despite the authorities in Punjab and New Delhi knowing about an impending attack. There are reports that as early as December 25, the day Modi was hugging and holding hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a friendly country (most likely the United States) had tipped off the government that a major military target in Punjab could be attacked by Pakistan-based jihadists. Even more specific intelligence was believed to have been available to the government nearly 24 hours before the terrorist strike on the Pathankot airbase.

Tardy response

Yet, despite the notice, there seems to have been surprising tardiness in throwing an impenetrable security ring around the perimeter. The role of the prime minister’s close aide, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who was in charge of coordinating the response to the terror attack, has been questioned by several security experts. Some feel that he made a major blunder by excessively depending on the National Security Guard, who had to be flown there, instead of leaving the operation to the military units who were both closer to the spot and more experienced to swiftly deal with the assailants.

Either way, there has been inadequate command, control and coordination at Pathankot.

To make matters worse, the government made no credible attempt to inform people of what exactly was happening. Official briefings spouted technical jargon like “neutralising” terrorists and protecting “assets” but little else. The home minister, after prematurely tweeting that the security operation was a success, went off to Assam, while the defence minister stayed mostly in his home state of Goa. For his part, the prime minister remained completely silent, except briefly lamenting that the “enemies of humanity” had raided our airbase.

On the diplomatic front, there was no minimising the embarrassment caused by the raid from Pakistan barely a week after Modi paid a surprise visit to Lahore to do “jhappi” diplomacy. Such a savage betrayal of the prime minister’s dramatic gesture of friendship cannot but have serious repercussions on bilateral ties. What was particularly galling was that till the third day of the security operation at Pathankot there was no direct phone call from Sharif to Modi or from the Pakistani national security advisor to his Indian counterpart, expressing concern and condemnation.

Political costs

Modi now has to choose between a rock and a hard place. Carrying on the scheduled bilateral dialogue with a meeting of foreign secretaries next week may be difficult given the enormity of provocation from across the border. At the same time, a return to the policy of no talks would indicate a spectacular collapse of Modi’s personalised diplomatic outreach.

That said, it is the impact on his personal political image that should worry the prime minister the most. Even the most ardent Modi supporters privately concede that there may be a high political cost to the prime minister sharing Nawaz Sharif’s birthday cake and exchanging gifts just a few days before the biggest terrorist strike on an Indian military installation from across the order.

The politics of Modi and his party has so far been immersed in nationalist colours, more so when it comes to Pakistan, a state considered the traditional adversary by the Sangh Parivar. More than any Indian leader before him, Modi has predicated his approach to politics in an obvious muscular fashion. Unlike the amiable Atal Bihari Vajpayee or the professorial Dr Manmohan Singh who managed to survive Pakistani skulduggery, a leader who advertises his 56-inch chest may find it difficult to live down a loss of face after extending a hand of friendship across the border. Ultra-nationalist rivals like Shiv Sena are already taunting Modi of having gone soft on the hard-line jingoism he used to pursue and it will not be surprising if other foes like Vishva Hindu Parishad chief Praveen Togadia follow suit.

After facing serious electoral setbacks in 2015 and with the economy failing to take off, the prime minister had hoped to reverse his political fortunes in the new year with a fresh strategy. Unfortunately for him, this strategy seems to have crashed even before it could gather wings.