Prime Ministers Narendra Modi with Pakistan PM Imran Khan | YouTube
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India has always had the capacity to strike back at Pakistan in response to the actions of the “non-state actors” its military controls. What New Delhi has always struggled with is the ability to control what follows — to limit the spiral of escalation, to retaliate without provoking full-fledged war between two nuclear-armed states.

There was a brief moment after the Indian Air Force’s strike in Pakistani territory in the early hours of Tuesday when it appeared that a way to thread that needle had been discovered. Rather than restricting itself to attacking terrorist training camps just across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir, India for the first time in decades struck areas that were undisputedly part of Pakistan itself. Strategists in New Delhi seemed confident that they’d fundamentally shifted the red lines in Kashmir and expanded India’s arsenal of possible retaliatory measures against Pakistan-backed militant attacks.

For that to be true, however, both Indian and Pakistani politicians would need to retain control of their (mutually incompatible) domestic narratives. The Indian government — facing a tough re-election campaign in just a few weeks — had to be able to tell its electorate that it had made Pakistan pay, claiming unofficially to have killed as many as 300 terrorist recruits. Pakistan had to be able to assert the opposite — that the Indians had hit nothing but a forested hilltop before being chased off by Pakistani fighter jets.

That’s why the Indian government was initially very careful to have its chief diplomat brief the press, rather than anyone connected with the military. India’s foreign secretary also stressed that this was a “non-military” action, meaning that it wasn’t directed at the Pakistani military, and that a central aim of the planning was to ensure there were no civilian casualties. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s ruling party was busy mocking the Indian media’s claims on Twitter, accusing journalists of watching too many Bollywood movies.

In general, as long as both sides focus on reassuring their domestic constituencies rather than contradicting each other’s version of events, the chances of conflict are paradoxically lower. The problem is that in this crisis like any other, facts inevitably intrude.

The mere fact that Indian jets had penetrated Pakistani airspace at will was too embarrassing for Islamabad not to strike back. It did so with care, launching air strikes on Wednesday that it similarly claimed were planned to avoid any civilian casualties. No doubt Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Pakistani military hoped to be allowed their narrative — that they’d shown Pakistan couldn’t be trifled with — without provoking a reaction from India.

But, one major and unwelcome fact — the capture of an Indian Air Force pilot, allegedly shot down as he pursued Pakistani jets across the de facto border — has eliminated that possibility. The two sides can no longer simply settle down and claim that they’d intimidated the other. (India said it shot down a Pakistani F-16, which Pakistan denied.)

Inevitably now, Indians will begin to ask questions. Why was a MiG-21 having to fight F-16s, rather than one of the Indian Air Force’s frontline fighters? Was there a lack of preparation, or a failure of strategy? India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had been hoping to go to voters claiming to have been far more muscular than its predecessors had been toward Pakistan. Its supporters on social media were already crafting this narrative. Now the government faces pressure to up the ante in an effort to get its pilot back.

This is the important point: There is no longer a clear path to de-escalation for the Indian government that also allows it to declare victory. Nor will Pakistan be able to back down if India responds, having vowed not to allow any challenges to its sovereignty.

The mistake both sides made was to assume that “truth” in today’s world can be independent of “fact” — and so that the old rules about escalation would no longer apply. We had better hope that, somehow, each government regains control of the narrative and that they have the moral and political courage to step away from the brink.


Also read: Why air strikes on Pakistan may not help Narendra Modi win the election


 

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Why doesn’t the author — whose hatred of Modi is no secret — ask why the UPA did not augment our air force in their 10 years. Ten full years spent negotiating the Rafale deal and — was still not able to close it!!

  2. Unconditional release of our brave pilot, Abhinandan. This is the only route to de-escalation. India should put this message in no uncertain terms to Pakistan. Regarding why the aged Mig-21 fighter planes are still being used, our political class has to answer this question. There is no plan for replacement of aging aircraft’s and all we do is to refurbish or upgrade such planes, as there is no other resort. Tejas planes were supposed to replace these planes. But firstly, there is inordinate delay in the project and secondly, HAL’s production capacity is too restricted to meet the demand.

  3. The fact of the matter is that Mihir is not writing truthfully. He is looking at Modi’s decision to strike just in the context of upcoming elections. Given his hatred for Modi, he can not stomach the possibility that this decision can help Modi in the election. Earlier, these guys of Mihir’s sort would predict that Modi will start a fight with Pak to win the election. But unfortunately, JeM presented him with the opportunity on platter at the right time! The truth is that Modi has shown what he is capable of; he can take risks and draw new red lines for Pak. Of course, Pak will react and in the battles, there would be losses as well. Now that India has established that it can hit any terrorist infrastructure anywhere in Pak or POK, in the next round after a few months, Mihir can trust Modi to give Pak a satellite image of terror camps and demand Pak to dismantle them else India would strike. And then Mihir can drop writing on macro economic issues and convert to India Pak journalism full time to pick facts from truths.

  4. Economics is the columnist’s forte. He might wish to write a column how these developments will impact India’s long term attractiveness as an investment destination. Kargil was a purely localised conflict. Barring that, there has been peace for fifty years. If geopolitical risk spikes, that will cause lasting damage. Doesn’t buttress our claim to a UNSC seat, either.

  5. We should know what we are getting into. One pilot captured by the Pakistanis – not at all meant to sound dismissive – and the press conference by JS XP – an AVM seated by his side, who did not speak a word – where no questions were taken did not confront this fact head on. This is not a media narrative that can be managed or spun. Journalists – although very supportive of the national interest, as they are all over the world in such situations – will start asking tough questions. The opposition too seems to have got out of its initial stupor, will not give a walkover on this issue.

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