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The February 14 suicide attack that killed 40 Indian defence personnel has stunned Indians across the world and sparked widespread anger with calls for revenge across the nation.

And it has effectively put India’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in a quandary, especially given that the general elections are just about three months away.

Almost immediately following the attack, the government announced its first retaliatory move – if one may call it that: to remove Pakistan’s Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status and vow to isolate it internationally. It called a meeting of diplomats from 25 nations and apprised them of this intention.

While these first reactions would have certainly underwhelmed or even frustrated many – particularly the hawks – there was only so much that the government could do at that early stage because of the fluidity of the situation amid the heart-rending task of laying the felled soldiers to rest.

However, even a week later, the government has not come up with any statement on how it plans to deal with the situation in a decisive manner any more than promising stern action.

BJP’s constituency is bound to see this as yet namby-pamby stance as more of the same that Indians have been used to seeing from their leaders for decades, no matter which party is in power.

The new resurgent India is brimming with a newfound confidence and will definitely look forward to some quick decisive action – much more than international campaigning to have the repeatedly offending Pakistani state-protected terrorist outfit put on a global terror list. Similar moves have come a cropper several times before, primarily because of China’s intransigence.

The government’s inaction or delayed reaction let alone any proactive measures against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in its five-year tenure – except the famed surgical strike – is bound to reinforce India’s image as a soft state, too hesitant to defend its armed forces and citizenry with decisive action in the minds of growing numbers of Indians.

While the government would doubtless be weighing its options on the kind of action that needs to be taken, there is no gainsaying that elements within it and the ruling party would be mindful of what effect such action might have on the results of the forthcoming elections.

Strong punitive action would swell the hearts of the hawks and most of the hardcore supporters of the party but such action could be extremely risky on several fronts: it could escalate into a full-blown conflict; there would be considerable collateral damage to deal with if indeed there is escalation; and lastly, there is that nuclear sword of Damocles dangling menacingly.

On the other hand, soft options like international campaigns to marginalise Pakistan and convincing the international community, particularly China and the Islamic world to condemn it, will be seen as a waste of time and win the government no friends domestically though internationally it will win brownie points from peaceniks.

From the electoral standpoint, therefore, the Modi government will need to take some strong action that will stop just short of precipitating a full-fledged conflict between the two countries but one that will have the optics of a strong and proud India, if it has to keep its constituency and even perhaps grow it in time for the polls.

To be seen as not doing enough or following weak strategies that have been tried before and have repeatedly failed is simply not an option.

Decision-making must be fast and action must appear strong and decisive. Any delay risks other similar attacks in the run up to the elections. That would be disastrous not just for the ruling party but for the whole country as well.

The Modi government is between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

First appeared in The Indian Weekender dated 22 February 2019.