Beating the war drums

Advani... gung-ho posturing?  

WHEN ON the second day (December 19) of the debate in the Lok Sabha on the terrorist attack of December 13, the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, rose to make his intervention, he began by referring to the plea of ``no war'' made a day earlier by Mr. Chandra Shekhar, former Prime Minister. Invoking the Mahabharata analogy, Mr. Vajpayee pointed out that the issue was ``under what circumstances there would be war... or whether there is even a need for war''. But then the Prime Minister ended up suggesting that while India would keep ``all its options open'', the option of ``war'' would not be the first option.

This was the first authoritative repudiation of the ``war, here and now'' theme that had effortlessly crept into the utterances of the Vajpayee Government's Ministers in the aftermath of the December 13 outrage. For instance, on Sunday (December 16), the Union Home Minister, Mr. L. K. Advani, made himself available to at least three TV channels; and, before the camera he barely managed to keep the testy note out of his response when the interviewers wanted to know how the Government was going to react to the terrorists' latest challenge. ``Judge us by our action, not by our words,'' was Mr. Advani's grim response. ``Action'' was imminent, concluded the war-prone.

This was the only response that the Union Home Minister could make, given the nation's ``mood'', a mood the likes of Mr. Advani had helped create in the first place. The day after the attack, a number of BJP MPs trooped into the Prime Minister's office at Parliament House and demanded ``action'' against Pakistan. A little later a group of younger Ministers registered a similar ``demarche'' with the Prime Minister. Most sections of the media gave in to the ``revenge'' theme; the unthinking assumption was that it was open to India to exercise the military option and if anything was delaying this hard option, it was a lack of will and guts on the part of the Government. No doubt December 13 gave a qualitatively different dimension to the on-going battle against terrorism. The country wanted ``revenge'', or at least some kind of response that would satisfy its collective urge to tell the terrorist perpetrators that India was not a crippled giant.

A newspaper's internet poll revealed, at least, the middle class mood: 85 per cent wanted the training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to be attacked. And, not to be left behind, there was the predictable reaction from the Sangh Parivar and its many outfits, all demanding that December 13 be avenged.

The Vajpayee Government found itself under pressure to ``do something'' or at least be seen as ``doing something''. After all, the Union Cabinet itself had declared, within hours of the December 13 attack, that ``we will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors, wherever they are, whosoever they are''. The easiest option was exercised; the troops began movement towards the Pakistan border. The Chief of the Army Staff, General S. Padmanabhan, allowed himself to observe that ``we are not flappy, we are watching Pakistan''. By the end of the week, it was allowed to be known that the Indian Army's strike formations, including tanks and heavy artillery, were moving closer to the border with Pakistan.

Since December 13 simply reinforced the mood that has been sought to be cultivated in this country after the September 11 carnage in New York, the Government finds itself having to extricate itself from the cranked up emotionalism. Many from its own corner have been beating the war drums rather loudly. The Vajpayee Government finds itself faced with the most serious challenge: how not to give in to the ugly and violent impulses, and, instead, to steer the public mood away from confrontation.