India’s highly-publicized surgical strike of 2016 has been discussed and dissected a thousand times. Many defense experts, foreign policy analysts, and social media ‘patriots’ offered their own interpretation after New Delhi had on September 29, 2016, announced conducting a covert operation across the Line of Control in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and claimed to have inflicted “significant casualties”. 

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The decision to eliminate terrorists on foreign soil was taken at the highest level – Prime Minister with the obvious consent from the President of India, who is also the Supreme Commander of the Indian armed forces. In 2016, the late Pranab Mukherjee was the ‘head of the state’. However, it seems he did not approve of the Modi government’s actions or rather ‘PR exercise’ in the wake of the surgical strike.

“Surgical strikes conducted by Indian forces across the border have been normal military operations in response to Pakistan’s continued aggression. But there is really no need to over-publicize them – something that has been done ever since the Indian military conducted strikes inside Pakistani territory since 2016,” Mukherjee, who passed away on August 31, 2020, wrote in his memoir, The Presidential Years 2012-2017.

The 2016 surgical strike was triggered by a suicide attack carried out by suspected Pakistani militants on an Indian Army camp in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, resulting in the death of 19 soldiers. Two and a half years later, India conducted a second surgical strike in response to a terror attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy, killing 40 security personnel in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir. 

To avenge the killing of 40 CRPF troopers, India on February 26, 2019, conducted an airstrike on terror hideouts in Balakot across the LoC. As many as 12 Mirage-2000 fighters dropped 1,000 kg payload on targets. Needless to say, the Balakot airstrike almost brought India and Pakistan to the brink of a war.

Former President Mukherjee, however, believed that “India gained nothing by overtalking on these operations”. An experienced politician as he was, Mukherjee made a correct assessment of the Modi government’s policy vis-à-vis Pakistan. He was of the view that India needs to tackle Pakistan through “deft handling”, dropping broad hints that the chest-thumping PR exercise to please a section of the electorate would reflect poorly on a mature democracy like India.

A seasoned politician, who was rumored to be a frontrunner for the Prime Minister’s post during Sonia Gandhi’s foreign-origin fiasco in 2004, Mukherjee had to be content with the Presidential role. And he fulfilled this role brilliantly, aiding and advising the Manmohan Singh government in its second term and the Modi government in its first innings.

However, his memoir reveals what he could not articulate during his stint at the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential palace). His take on the Modi government’s foreign policy faux pas is quite telling. For instance, Mukherjee believed that Modi ‘gatecrashing’ the birthday party of then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif’s daughter was “unnecessary and uncalled for, given the conditions that prevailed in India-Pakistan relations”.

However, Mukherjee did have a word of praise for the PM as he wrote, “One could expect the unexpected from Modi because he had come with no ideological foreign policy baggage”.

Mukherjee also made scathing remarks on the Congress’ debacle in the 2014 general elections. He said India’s grand old party had failed to learn from the path shown by the likes of first PM Jawaharlal Nehru.

“Tall leaders like Pandit Nehru ensured that India, unlike Pakistan, survived and developed into a strong and stable nation. Sadly, such extraordinary leaders are not there anymore, reducing the establishment to a government of averages,” read his memoir that was released on Tuesday (January 5). 

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