New Delhi: Some years ago, this writer met a German army officer at a seminar. He was a colonel from one of the armoured divisions, and so the conversation naturally drifted to the Wehrmacht of World War II, the Panzer armies, and the Ardennes offensive brilliantly conceived by General Erich von Manstein. Even should one know the outcome, the final discussion matter with the officer followed the same natural course: So why did Adolf Hitler lose the war? Without a trace of embarrassment, he replied, “We failed strategically.”

This past interaction comes to mind considering the latest controversy over the tapes of the September 2016 Indian Army raid across Pakistan’s frontiers which have been played on national television. Their authenticity has been established by the army. It is a leak from the government on which the army may or may not have been consulted. If the army was consulted and the tapes were still leaked, it stinks. Why should the army involve itself in an underhand party-political enterprise? On the other hand, if the leak happened on the government’s sole initiative, the rottenness is multiplied manyfold. The timing also becomes suspect. Why put out the tapes months before the general election? The Congress party is right on this. The Narendra Modi government is politicizing an army operation to win votes. This deserves unambiguous condemnation.

Should the tapes have been released for argument’s sake a little after the 2016 operation? This is tricky. Usually, military operations are not publicized in all their audio-visual details so soon after execution. Indeed, they are never publicized. Much later, after the risks are mitigated, portions may come out, but with details still redacted. However, all these are done upfront. There are no leaks. The Modi regime extracted all the possible mileage from the 2016 raid for the Uttar Pradesh election. Manohar Parrikar, the defence minister at the time, made some atrocious religio-nationalistic statements. The Indian Army is officially secular. Examined from all angles, therefore, there was no cause to leak the tapes now except to influence the general election. This is gross.

Let us now examine the raid itself. A military operation cannot be assessed in isolation. The Ardennes offensive was brilliant. Who could have thought of tanks racing down hillsides a little over two decades after the most murderous immobility of trench warfare of the First World War? But Hitler still lost the Second. The 2016 raid was well-managed and tightly executed. For an army that broke a foreign country in half in 1971, it was not extraordinary. Factoring for the changed conditions between 1971 and 2016, the operation was tidy. But viewed in the backdrop of India-Pakistan tensions and Pakistani terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, it was a drop in the ocean. The Narendra Modi government is scraping the bottom of the barrel for something to show in 2019. It is projecting the 2016 raid as a strategic success. You don’t need genius to see through the falsehood.

National security and geopolitics are about strategy. Strategy is political in nature. To strategize to contain and roll back Pakistani terrorism, you have to factor its all-weather alliance with China, nuclear weapons, and its generic indispensability to the Major Powers, the United States, Russia and of course China. Indira Gandhi had a pointed political aim to dismember Pakistan. She left the execution of the aim in its purely military dimensions to the military. What was the political aim of the 2016 strike? Was there any? It is doubtful. The army was told to avenge the Uri attack. It did as it was told. Has it stopped Pakistani terrorism? You cannot found national security and geopolitics on a revenge mentality. And you certainly cannot draw political mileage from it forever. With all the publicity given to the 2016 strike, what if a repeat fails and soldiers are killed or captured? Could a Central government survive the calamity?

Narendra Modi has a single point agenda: To win 2019. That is fine. Politics and ambitions (however wretched) go together. But why is he dragging the military in his low political battles? The army has its hands full in Jammu and Kashmir without wanting to be dragged into the nasty battleground of 2019. The tapes have been leaked and the damage has been done. The Modi government has acted dishonourably. To prevent further damage, the issue must be banished from public discourse. Pakistani terrorism is India’s number two national security threat after Chinese expansionism. From time to time, the military may have to take steps to address specific threats. This is best achieved without publicity and without the regime rushing in for party-political advantage. Public opinion sees through cleverness and jingoism never works.