Maturity and De-escalation: Asian Age
Maturity and De-escalation: Asian Age
The Asian Age: India-Pakistan relations, turbulent over the entire tenure of Narendra Modi’s prime ministership, reached a crisis point after the dastardly attack at Pulwama on a CRPF convoy on February 14. It was audacious as it reintroduced the deadly car bomb, which hasn’t been seen in the Valley in some years. The sheer ferocity of the attack, literally mangling and instantly killing over 40 bus occupants, ignited anger across India.
The BJP, meanwhile, had been assiduously working since the “surgical strike” following the 2016 attack on the Uri military camp to foment jingoism. The operation was turned into a film, promoted for viewing by the BJP faithful, among others, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election. The Pulwama attack ignited that subliminal nationalistic churn.
The BJP-led NDA government sat on its hands as Kashmiri students studying outside their home state were harassed. Prime Minister Modi kept silent till the exodus had turned into a deluge. Meanwhile, chants of revenge began urging a willing government to extract immediate and visible revenge from Pakistan. The BJP sensed an opportunity to divert public discourse from bread-and-butter issues, such as rural distress and unemployment, which had cost the BJP three vital Hindi-belt states, to national security. Modi breached constitutional propriety and ethical norms while inaugurating the new National War Memorial on February 25. He did not invite the President of India who, according to Article 53(2) of the Constitution is the “supreme commander” of the defence forces, to do the honours. He also used the occasion for Congress-bashing, misusing a sacred space commemorating the supreme sacrifice of Indian servicemen. Nowhere in the world are such national monuments used to promote such blatant political partisanship.
Early next morning was launched the well-planned attack by the Indian Air Force on two points near the Line of Control and a massive bombing of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training camp at Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, thus breaking old taboos. Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale in his briefing, said: India conducted a “non-military, pre-emptive” attack; India had reliable intelligence that terrorists and suicide bombers there were training to attack India; India had no desire to target the Pakistani military or escalate. Pakistan immediately contested the Indian version, saying no buildings were destroyed or people killed at Balakot. India, on the other hand, claimed a few hundred militants dead, including the who’s who of the JeM’s terror syndicate. Balakot has a special resonance for JeM head Masood Azhar. In 1831 Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army had eliminated the radical Muslim jihadists led by Sayed Ahmed, who declared jihad on Sikhs after proclaiming himself, a la Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Amir al-Mu’minin. Its destruction shatters that propaganda value of Balakot.
By nightfall PM Narendra Modi had effectively rewritten the strategic equation between India and Pakistan, having ignored the nuclear blackmail lingering since the 1990s. India showed it can reach leading perpetrators of terror against India and inflict punishment even when the Pakistani state protected them. But by forenoon the next day, the feel-good air vanished as the news spread of a helicopter crash and an Indo-Pak aerial dogfight over the LoC. Indian television channels focused on India shooting down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet but ignored till late afternoon that in fact an Indian MiG-21 Bison had also been shot down by Pakistan in a clever ambush. The pilot was seen soon in Pakistani hands. Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan appeared on television and played the reasonable adversary, condoling the loss of life at Pulwama, and suggesting dialogue and de-escalation. The Indian pilot, Pakistan claimed, would be treated as per the Geneva Conventions.
US President Donald Trump, preoccupied with his parleys with North Korean leader in Vietnam gave early indication of some positive development in Indo-Pak military stand-off. But his reputation for incomplete comprehension of complex issues made most think he was over optimistic or ill-briefed. PM Imran Khan sprung a surprise on the floor of Pakistan’s National Assembly on February 28 when he announced their decision to repatriate the apprehended Indian pilot unilaterally. This queers the jingoistic pitch of Modi government as any military action now would appear like thankless adventurism unless fresh provocation emanates from Pakistani state or non-state elements. Meanwhile US will have to calibrate what next steps need to be taken by both sides to make the de-escalation permanent.
Three defence services after this held a press conference to reiterate strong defense preparedness and show proof of Pakistani loss of F-16.
So far global opinion has favoured India as even China refused to condemn the Indian action. Australia, in fact, was strongly supportive. Imran Khan rang up the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi and probably got advice to not escalate.
The Modi government, however, faces a dilemma. Accepting a dialogue, even short of formal talks, returns the script to terror and talks going together, unless Pakistan starts moving against India-specific terror networks. Alternatively, the government has two basic options - one, to escalate and inflict more punishment on the Pakistani military if it does not relent and start dismantling its terror networks; two, keep the military option on the table while getting the international community to ratchet up the pressure, some space now being created by Imran Khan pilot release gambit. The first plays into the instincts of the BJP’s core constituency and perhaps its electoral needs. But international opinion and more importantly President Trump will now swing against more adventurism by India.
Meanwhile, 21 Opposition parties met and issued a statement criticising the “politicisation of military and national security issues” and questioning the Prime Minister for not even meeting the Opposition as nation faced a serious challenge.
They naturally expressed solidarity with the armed forces. The external affairs ministry summoned Pakistan’s deputy high commissioner and protested against the Pakistani air attack on military targets, adding that India reserved the right to retaliate.
Military escalation is not a perfect science, as the events of the past few days have shown. But as Otto von Bismarck, the astute 19th century German Chancellor, had said, “People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war and before an election.” In India, it is these last two together.
KC Singh is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry.