More than fear and insecurity, it is outrage that is driving public opinion after the terrorist attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama. There is widespread expectation that the Narendra Modi government retaliate using military force and further, conversationally at least, many people want to go to war with Pakistan
To the extent that such a state of public opinion allows the government a greater leeway in terms of options, it’s a good thing. On the flip side, to the extent that it compels the government to respond to the popular mood, it is dangerous. Politics might almost always be a popularity contest, but statecraft is not. If India must retaliate against Pakistan, it must be for reasons of strategy, not to assuage outraged public opinion.
The strategic reason for India to retaliate is to impose costs on the Pakistani military-jihadi complex so as to deter further attacks to the extent possible. If an attack on India goes without punishment, the military-jihadi complex will be encouraged to carry out more. Retaliation is also necessary to persuade the Pakistani military establishment that it cannot use its nuclear shield and Chinese political cover to attack India with impunity.
The optimum Indian response is one that hits the Pakistani military-jihadi complex where it hurts most, but not so much that they would want to escalate the matter and start a conventional war. The hurt need not only be physical. In fact, the Pakistani army might more likely start a war if its image takes too hard a beating in the eyes of the Pakistani people, than if it suffers physical damage outside the limelight. In any case, since we cannot know at what point Pakistan will escalate and how, we should realise that any meaningful use of force by India risks, ultimately, an outbreak of war.
And once there is war, there is no saying how long it will take, and how it will end. History is replete with generals who said the “boys will be back home by Christmas” and were later found to be wrong by several Christmases (for the boys who did make it back home). So, you don’t do things that can start a war without putting a lot of careful thought into it.
This is not a great insight. Our political and military leaders are aware of it, as is anyone who has thought through the matter carefully. Unfortunately, our political leadership and mainstream media are failing to explain this to the people. There is too much casual talk of carrying out more surgical strikes, of going to war, of enough is enough, as if these were trifling things to do. To the extent that popular views feed back into the political system, there is a risk that political leaders allow public opinion to outweigh strategic considerations in their decision-making.
The prime minister has announced that India will respond forcefully, and that he has given a free hand to the security forces to respond at a time, place and manner of their choosing. Yet, it is hard to conceive of any meaningful response that does not need political consideration and approval. Given that their actions can trigger war, it would be irresponsible for the government to let the armed forces decide how to respond. Make no mistake: exercising any option concerning Pakistan will require the prime minister’s approval.
As we talk of war, we should reflect on what it takes to prosecute one successfully, especially knowing that there’s no certainty that it’ll end quickly and on our terms.
Can we afford it? Projecting the costs of the 1999 Kargil war, my colleague Pranay Kotasthane estimates that a conflict of that kind today will cost between Rs 3,500 crore/week to Rs 13,000 crore/week. Over two months, it will cost us between 0.15% to 0.5% of the GDP. Of course, if we could afford it then, we certainly can afford it now. But remember every rupee spent on war is a rupee taken away from other areas — at a time when public finances are under stress to cover farm loan waivers, income guarantees, pensions and other social expenditure.
Moreover, military conflict will require higher taxes, deter non-military investments and incur opportunity costs in terms of the development sacrificed. Every additional percentage of GDP growth pulls 2 million people out of absolute poverty and improves the lives of tens of millions more. We might be able to afford the war bill, but this is what we will be really putting at risk.
Can our society bear it? These are the most polarised times in my memory. All kinds of cleavages have been sharpened over the past few years. Pakistan has achieved propaganda victories at very low cost already, as real and fake reports of attacks on Kashmiris in various parts of India do the rounds. If war breaks out, we will be more vulnerable. The Modi government’s failure to address the affective divide in Kashmir deepens our vulnerabilities there. With social harmony already under stress, this is not a great time to get into a war.
At this time, the international community — except China — largely favours India’s position. It is by no means certain that this will continue if we go to war. In any case, it is in China’s interests that we get bogged down by Pakistan as much as possible, and why they are unlikely to lose the opportunity to do that if we hand it to them.
These, at the least, are the stakes. That’s why how India responds to the terrorist provocation at Pulwama is more important than the casual conversations around us might suggest.
Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.
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