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Tough Stand by India’s Modi on Militants Raises Risks With Pakistan

An effigy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India was burned during a protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan, on Oct. 7. CreditShakil Adil/Associated Press

NEW DELHI — As an opposition leader, Narendra Modi was a vocal critic of India’s government for not responding more forcefully to cross-border attacks from militants based in Pakistan. As prime minister, Mr. Modi has not shied away from openly retaliating in Pakistani-controlled Kashmiragainst the militants — and stirring up nationalist passions.

Now, with his tough stance, there are growing concerns that Mr. Modi may have narrowed his options, raising the risks of war with India’s nuclear-armed rival, Pakistan.

Experts are worrying about what India will do when Pakistan-based militants carry out another attack in India, as is almost certain. And how will Pakistan respond?

“We’re not at the point of no return, but we are in very dangerous waters,” said Bruce Riedel, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the Central Intelligence Agency, where he advised several American presidents on South Asia.

“When we get to the next terror attack, which is probably only a matter of time, the prime minister has boxed himself in, and he can’t take the route his predecessors did and choose to use solely diplomatic alternatives without some loss of face,” Mr. Riedel said.

After Pakistan-based militants attacked an army base in Kashmir in September, Mr. Modi publicly declared retaliatory strikes in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region. Previous governments had made similar forays but only in covert operations.

Mr. Modi followed the strikes with a campaign to isolate Pakistan diplomatically — he denounced the country as “a mother ship of terrorism” at a summit meeting last week — and they have unleashed a nationalist fury within India that may be hard to contain.

That frenzy, stoked by the Indian news media, “is in danger of pushing India into conflict,” said Myra MacDonald, the author of “Defeat Is an Orphan: How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War.”

Pakistani did not retaliate after India’s strikes last month, and instead tried to play them down. To acknowledge them would have forced Pakistan to retaliate, experts say, and Pakistan is not eager to plunge into a war.

But the Pakistani Army cannot realistically deny anything took place after each incident, said Ajai Shukla, a retired Indian Army colonel who writes about defense for the Business Standard newspaper in New Delhi.

“The Pakistani military would be forced to retaliate in the event of a more prominent strike,” in part to guard its image as the ever-vigilant protector of Pakistan, he said. And there is no predicting where such a conflict could lead, the experts say.

“The big danger here is once you get started up the escalation ladder, how do you cool it off?” Mr. Riedel said.

“I’m scared,” Mr. Shukla said. “We’re not Israel bullying Gaza, or the U.S. with Haiti. We’re the fourth-biggest army confronting the 11th-biggest army.”

Still, many praise Mr. Modi for deftly handling the diplomacy around the September military strikes so Pakistan did not feel compelled to retaliate, and the United States and other nations were supportive. “Modi walked a very fine line that worked for him this time,” Mr. Shukla said.

Relatives mourned a member of India’s border security forces who was killed, reportedly by gunfire from the Pakistani side of the border. CreditJaipal Singh/European Pressphoto Agency

He said he believed Mr. Modi was confident that he could find a way to respond to the next militant attack without allowing the situation to spiral out of control. The latest strikes were too small to deter militant activity but might be strategically helpful by making Mr. Modi seem unpredictable and irrational to a Pakistan accustomed to a more muted response from India, Mr. Shukla said.

The nuclear-armed neighbors have been facing off ever since gaining independence from Britain in 1947. They have fought three wars and routinely shoot each other’s soldiers in border disputes.

In January, several militants infiltrated an Indian Air Force base and engaged in a daylong battle before they were killed. India said they were members of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad group, and Pakistan arrested several members in response.

Then in September, militants attacked an army base near the line of control separating Indian-controlled Kashmir from the Pakistani side, killing 19 soldiers. India said items found on the slain militants bore Pakistani markings, but Pakistan denied involvement.

Mr. Modi’s more aggressive public response has resonated with a public that has grown increasingly frustrated by the inability of successive governments to stop militant attacks that India believes — and in some cases has proved — emanate from Pakistan.

Since 2001, militants have struck the Indian Parliament, Mumbai’s top hotels and the city’s main train station, in addition to military targets, among others.

Mr. Modi’s predecessors were more risk averse by nature, Mr. Shukla said. “Modi is better at brinkmanship than they were in these actions where there’s an element of risk,” Mr. Shukla said. “Manmohan Singh would not take that risk and would place India’s economic development ahead of it,” he said, referring to the previous prime minister.

That willingness to take risk derives in part from Mr. Modi’s ambition. Where his predecessors looked at Pakistan as a problem to be managed, the Modi administration seems to believe it can solve the Indian-Pakistani conflict, Ms. MacDonald said.“That’s dangerous, because I don’t think they can solve it,” she said.

In his swearing-in ceremony in 2014, Mr. Modi invited Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan to India, signaling an interest in making peace. He later visited Lahore for an impromptu visit with Mr. Sharif. But despite Mr. Modi’s overtures, the militant attacks have continued.

Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College in London, said he believed Mr. Modi viewed as a personal affront the fact that “his overtures to Pakistan have gone in vain.”

In reality, Mr. Sharif does not have full control over militant groups in his country, Mr. Riedel said. In Pakistan, power is divided between the democratically elected government and the military, whose powerful intelligence wing, experts say, is tied to some militant groups that carry out attacks in India. The leaders of the groups roam freely in Pakistan, some seen as local heroes. “Prime Minister Sharif knows better than most that there are limits to how far he can push the army without the army pushing him out the door,” Mr. Riedel said.

In the nationalist fervor that has gripped India, a leading Bollywood film producers group voted to ban employing Pakistanis, and a major cinema organization said it would not screen films with Pakistani actors. The mainstream news media has jumped into the fray, with a popular television talk show host, Arnab Goswami, berating the Indian superstar Salman Khan for not supporting the ban on Pakistani actors.

Nationalist sentiment has spiraled so high that even Mr. Modi may be powerless to contain it, Mr. Shukla said. “He’s gotten onto the tiger, and now he can’t get off,” he said.

With elections coming up in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party will be motivated to keep nationalist sentiment high because it has quickly subsumed economic development as the party’s main election platform there, Mr. Shukla said. But as useful as Mr. Modi might believe that frenzy is in winning votes, it is confirming fears in Pakistan that India is the aggressor and is not interested in peace, Ms. MacDonald said.

“The message that the Indian government wants to give to Pakistan is we do want peace but we want you to get rid of” the militant groups, she said. In Pakistan, she said, “what’s coming across now is the opposite, and that’s created an atmosphere where a lot of people are rallying behind the army.” That pressures the Pakistani government against exercising restraint in the future.

And in the “media frenzy,” there is little room for either side to initiate dialogue, “on the fringes of a meeting, to pick up the threads and talk,” Ms. MacDonald said. “It’s a very dangerous situation,” Mr. Riedel said, “one big terrorist attack from disaster.”

© The New York Times 2016

A version of this article appears in print on October 24, 2016, on page A7 of the New York edition with the headline: Tough Stand on Militants Raises Risks With Pakistan.

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