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Over the past few decades, India has endured hundreds of terror attacks – the 13 December 2001 attack on Parliament House and the 26 November 2008 multiple shootings in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people being the worst.

The Pulwama suicide attack last month is the latest in this bloody list perpetrated by terror groups based in Pakistan with the tacit support of its intelligence services, a fact that the world has now come to acknowledge despite Pakistan’s strenuous denials.

Jaish-e-Mohammed immediately claimed responsibility for Pulwama. Its leader was at the time believed to be in a government hospital in Pakistan. The world’s intelligence services are well aware of its terror camps, recruitment facilities and businesses around the country. The Indian government has given it a dossier linking the attacks to this group. And yet the Pakistan government says it will take action if it finds any “actionable evidence.”

The country has no credibility left. And India has no patience left.

Unlike New Delhi’s non-response after the parliament and Mumbai attacks or for that matter any previous serious terror attack, its response after Pulwama was swift, powerful and decisive.

So what changed? Then as now, India had highly motivated, well-trained armed forces, it had the requisite firepower on ground, in the air and on the water and it even had credible plans to avenge those attacks.

What was different then were two things, as Air Chief Marshal (Retd) Fali Homi Major the chief of air staff of the Indian Air Force told Indian media recently. One, the government was different. And two, India’s intelligence gathering today is far superior to what it was ever before.

He said the intelligence input that goes into the planning of an airstrike such as Balakot is considerable and has to be fool proof. It must take into account every scenario and potential eventuality after the target is positively identified beyond doubt. This is important to keep the attack focused, meaningful and with minimal collateral damage, if at all any. The quality of intelligence gathering had greatly improved over the years, he said.

There is little doubt that in the past few years, India has notched up its defence game on several fronts – from intelligence gathering and processing to firepower and defensive and offensive weapon systems.

The Air Chief Marshal also said that the other difference between then and now was in the leadership at the top of the government. No amount of superior intelligence, weaponry, tactical and strategic superiority and a highly motivated armed force can be of much use if there is no political will. And political will was sorely lacking in the Indian leadership following the parliament and Mumbai attacks. Leaders counseled patience while making empty threats about retaliation without following through.

It is now well on record that the armed forces had submitted detailed plans to the government on decisive retaliation, but all of them came a cropper in the face of a complete lack of political will. Even if the benefit of doubt is given to previous governments that their inaction might have been partly due to lack of firm intelligence inputs, there is no excuse for not following through and keeping up relentless pressure on Pakistan.

This time around it is starkly different. Immediately after Pulwama, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the government had given full power to the armed forces to act as required. And act they did. The terror groups would have least expected an Indian airstrike, rather expecting a conventional response from the ground.

In the months ahead, the armed forces have their work cut out. The Indian Navy’s Admiral Sunil Lanba said this week that there was a possibility that terror groups could attack via the sea route, taking advantage of India’s vast 7000-kilometre shoreline. There is a precedent to this: the Mumbai attacks were carried out exactly like this.

The Indian government’s resolve to allow the armed forces to act firmly and decisively on its own with minimal political interference is the best thing that has happened in India’s fight against terror.

First appeared in The Indian Weekender dated 8 March 2019.