Since the Pulwama attack on CRPF convoy Indo-Pak relations have gone through a full cycle of escalation, war rhetoric, air strikes, dog-fights above the Line of Control, shooting down of planes and now a miraculous return of the Indian pilot after four days of Pakistani custody. The last must be a global record between nations still on high alert. An early signal that some de-escalation was afoot came from US President Donald Trump as he wrapped up an unsuccessful summit with leader of Democratic Republic of Korea in Vietnam. He hinted some good developments were imminent in the next twenty-four hours. Most analysts, including this writer, discounted it as verbal mutterings of Trump paying only passing attention to a serious stand-off between two nuclear weapon possessing powers.
Junior Saudi Foreign minister turned up in Islamabad prior to the release announcement by Pakistani Prime Minister on the floor of their National Assembly on February 28. Preceding that was the drama involving the shooting of an Indian Mig 21 while pursuing intruding Pakistani jets and eventually shooting down a Pakistani F-16. But confusion persisted for some hours as different versions came from Islamabad and New Delhi. While Pakistan denied losing any plane, they not only lost a plane but one of the two pilots bailing out of the F-16 apparently died. Witnesses in India watching the dog-fight in the skies had told Indian television journalists that they saw two parachutes coming down. Pakistan assumed they had shot down two Indian planes. Even Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in his initial broadcast claimed that. All this reflects poorly on both nations as they possess nuclear weapons and must have the capacity to know in real time the status of weapons, delivery systems and air force planes.
BJP government earlier seemed surprised a day after the euphoria of the claimed Balakot strike when the Pakistani retaliatory strike, though not causing any damage on the ground, led to the loss of an Indian plane and the capture of the Indian pilot. At that stage US and its two GCC allies, Saudi Arabia and Emirates, intervened to restrain both sides from escalating the confrontation further. Television studio warriors in India were baying for Pakistani blood as BJP faced the dilemma of tackling the very public opinion it had been whipping up since the 2016 Uri attack and the resulting “surgical strike”. In recent months, particularly after losing three Hindi-belt state elections, the movie Uri about that operation was turned into cause celebre for BJP’s chest-thumping. Indian defence minister even emulated the catchy movie slogan “How’s Josh”.
On the positive side Modi government broke the old taboo of not crossing imaginary red-lines in punishing Pakistan even when its hand was clearly visible in abetting terror attacks in India. Nuclear blackmail stymied immediate retaliation for fear of escalation reaching nuclear threshold. Current strike at Balakot, whatever the level of damage caused, breaks that mental barrier. Secondly, the leaders of Pakistani jihadi groups can no longer assume they are safe in Pakistan as India is in the process of acquiring armed drones which can be deployed with greater precision against open air targets. It is possible Pakistani army and their agency ISI may move camps of Jihadis within army camps or cantonments but that would make deniability difficult.
It also indicates that India has been able to gain the trust of ruling families in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. Combined with China they are underwriting the financial rescue package for Pakistan. They have succeeded in stopping the Indo-Pak confrontation before it crossed the point of no return. Both these Gulf powers would expect India to not cosy up to Iran. The resignation of Jet Airways chairman Naresh Goyal is a sign that path may have been cleared for Abu Dhabi’s Al Etihad to obtain its control indirectly. India’s private sector oil major RIL would figure somewhere in this new convergence of interests.
What next is the question. It is highly unlikely that India will launch any fresh strike unless there is any new terror attack or provocation. The fear that war-like scenario may affect the schedule or holding of Indian elections seems now distant. As indeed the concern over BJP using military operations for political ends. Twenty-one opposition parties meeting in Delhi expressed that concern. But international scepticism about the accuracy or efficacy of India attack on Balakot will linger. Government needs to address it with its own post-attack assessment pictures to counter that narrative.
It is likely that if BJP does not abjure politicisation of military operations, opposition may start posing questions which are now being asked abroad. It is best to close ranks and move to Lok Sabha polls as a united nation that does not draw defence forces into domestic political battles. But Pakistan cannot be ignored and would need to be engaged post-election as indeed deterred by a strong military posture. Jammu & Kashmir too cannot be left to security forces to crush. No counter-terror strategy can work without a corresponding hearts and minds outreach. But first the nation has to decide if they want more of the same majoritarian politics or they would prefer return to an India envisaged by India’s founding fathers.
( K. C. Singh, former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, is a veteran diplomat and renowned commentator. )