February 16, 2020
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Fuzzy Signals

The PM's hawk and dove stand notwithstanding, the mood seems much more sombre now

Fuzzy Signals
Fuzzy Signals
Has the prime minister finally declared war on Pakistan, or not? The PM’s three-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir gave out mixed signals. While meeting troops at the border town of Kupwara on May 22, Vajpayee was full of war rhetoric. By the next day, there were "no war clouds" but only "clear skies".

So how does one explain Vajpayee playing hawk one day and dove the next? The PM’s spin doctors have their own take. Says a PMO official: "Don’t read too much into his off-the-cuff remarks." Trying to find a common thread in the two speeches, the official added: "Look at the press conference in its totality. There are no contradictions. The PM has maintained his Kupwara position that India would fight terrorism. Off-the-cuff remarks aren’t policy statements."

A PMO official who accompanied Vajpayee on his J&K visit had his own take on the Kupwara speech. He claimed that by ‘battle’ the PM did not mean an all-out war, but was referring to ‘action’. And when Vajpayee said that his visit should be taken as a ‘signal’, he actually meant ‘message’. The difference, he says, is in the nuances. Explains a PMO spokesperson: "You can have a battle without a full-fledged war...there is a difference between war and the action we are planning."

Regardless, there is a perceptible difference in the rhetoric itself when compared to the PM’s reaction after the December 13 attack on Parliament. At that time, even the cautious Jaswant Singh was moved to say that the situation called for an ‘extraordinary’ response. L.K. Advani had claimed that Pakistan had crossed the ‘Lakshman rekha’ and once again advocated his favourite hot pursuit theory. Vajpayee told the Lok Sabha on December 19, "we have exercised restraint so far, but it is being taken as a sign of weakness". He also spoke of "other options", apart from the diplomatic initiative.

A PM’s aide says it would be wrong to dismiss Vajpayee’s stand post-Kaluchak as mere rhetoric. "The mood is more grim now. Just because no one is mentioning tactical and strategic options doesn’t mean these are not being considered. This time it’s all behind-the-scenes action," he says.

In fact, the aide points out that the PM landed in Delhi and went straight for a Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meeting. Sources say Vajpayee told the CCS that Pakistan had "crossed the threshold as far as terrorism is concerned". He wanted India to go "all out against the terrorists".

However, this still falls short of the "decisive battle" cry that he raised in Kupwara. But with the PM at his ambiguous best, one can only quote his own comment at the Srinagar press conference: "Aage aage dekhiye hota hai kya (Wait and see what happens)." That’s all the prime minister is willing to commit on record, for now.

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