Jawans carry a victim after militants attacked a CRPF convoy in Goripora area of Awantipora town in Pulwama district. (Source: PTI)

Modi Vows Terrorists Will Pay as Pakistan Blamed for Attack

(Bloomberg) -- The worst terror attack on India since Narendra Modi came to power will put pressure on the prime minister to approve a military response against Pakistan, which it blamed for a deadly assault in Kashmir, as it comes ahead of the country’s general election. Islamabad denied any link.

“India will give a befitting reply to this incident,” Modi said in a speech on Friday. "The security forces have been given full freedom to decide. I want to tell the terror groups and their sponsors that they have committed a grave mistake for which they will now have to pay a very heavy price."

Modi Vows Terrorists Will Pay as Pakistan Blamed for Attack

At least 37 paramilitary personnel died and many others were injured in an assault yesterday on a convoy in the Indian-controlled Kashmir, according to officials. Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based terror group, claimed responsibility for the attack that took place in Pulwama near the state capital Srinagar.

It was the worst since a 2016 ambush on a military camp which prompted India to launch cross-border attacks against Pakistan. That incident claimed 19 lives.

The deadly strike is the latest challenge for Modi who’s already battling a slide in popularity over rising concerns of lack of jobs, and could prompt New Delhi to launch a limited military strike to shore up support. At the heart of the dispute is Kashmir which has been divided between nuclear-armed Indian and Pakistan since 1947 but is claimed in full by both. India is estimated to have up to 500,000 troops stationed in the region.

Modi Vows Terrorists Will Pay as Pakistan Blamed for Attack

"This attack will pose a major test for Modi," said Michael Kugelman, senior South Asia associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center. "Given the fast-approaching election and his increasing political vulnerability, he will be under tremendous pressure to resort to some type of muscular response."

New Delhi says Jaish-e-Mohammad has carried out attacks on Indian security forces in the past but Pakistan has refused to act.

“This terror group is led by the international terrorist Masood Azhar, who has been given full freedom by the government of Pakistan to operate and expand his terror infrastructure in territories under the control of Pakistan and to carry out attacks in India and elsewhere with impunity,” India’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry denied any role and said it always condemned acts of violence. "We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian government and media circles that seek to link the attack to the State of Pakistan without investigations," it said in a statement.

Safe Haven

The White House called “on Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil, whose only goal is to sow chaos, violence, and terror in the region.”

The attack is bound to raise tensions in South Asia in part because it comes in the lead up to India’s general elections due by May, said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia between 2010 and 2013.

"The attack undoubtedly increases pressure on the Modi government to respond militarily, not only due to the upcoming elections, but as a question of national pride," she said, adding that it "suggests that there’s not a lot India can do to improve its ties with Pakistan absent a government and military across the border willing to rein in terror."

Pressure on China

The attack may also put pressure on China, a close ally of Pakistan, to alter its "indefensible position" at the United Nations Security Council, where Beijing has blocked India’s attempts to list Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Azhar as a designated terrorist, Ayres said.

Domestically, the assault on troops could present Modi with a political opportunity ahead of his re-election bid, according to Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Following the 2016 attack in Uri, Modi’s administration played up its cross-border strikes in state-level elections, and is likely to do the same thing if it chooses to respond militarily now, he added.

"It does set a possible pretext for a forceful response, which could have a ‘rally round the flag’ effect which could create a nationalist fervor that would bolster Modi’s standing," Vaishnav said.

Indian finance minister, Arun Jaitley, said India had withdrawn the most favored nation status it had accorded Pakistan. Revoking that privilege will end trade concessions offered to the neighboring nation, which exported $489 million worth of goods, including fruits and nuts, to India in the year ended March 2018.

The move is bound to hurt Pakistan’s export revenue at a time when it’s tapping friendly nations to bridge a financing gap of more than $12 billion and faced a credit score downgrade due to a deterioration in its economic outlook.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party, backed the government’s calls for an international ban on Jaish-e-Mohammed.

‘Politically Untenable’

Both India and the U.S. see Pakistan as providing safe haven for terrorist groups and point to the fact that the leadership of groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the Mumbai attacks in 2008, still live freely in Pakistan.

However, since coming to power last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan’s powerful military have attempted to push for peace with India -- which has been seen with deep skepticism in New Delhi. Both nations’ armies sporadically exchange fire across the heavily militarized de facto border in Kashmir known as the “Line of Control.”

For now, Modi is unlikely to react by sending troops across the border, said Sasha Riser-Kositsky, a senior South Asia analyst at New York-based Eurasia Group.

"Modi is most likely to authorize some sort of limited retaliation, such as artillery strikes, that burnish his image of strength without risking calls for retaliation on the Pakistani side and further dangerous escalation," he said in an email. "Failing to retaliate in any way is politically untenable."

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