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In Modi's chest-thumping, self-valorisation Air Force has not even incidental role to play

By Anand K. Sahay*
Narendra Modi has proved a red-hot, election-time, hyper-nationalist. We saw this after Uri when key Uttar Pradesh state polls were 12 weeks away, and now after Pulwama when the Lok Sabha election is six weeks away. At other times, he has shown a lack of skill to craft a politics which lessens security threats. Kashmir is a perfect example.
"Oh, What a Lovely War!" The landmark 1969 musical, director Richard Attenborough’s debut film – a satire on the First World War, and on war and war – has even the Dalai Lama blessing the war effort in the early part of the epic comedy, so pious seems the project, so plainly just.
In India, the storyline has not been dissimilar. The messianic effort by the ruling establishment that has gone into underlining the justness of the cause and the absolute necessity of the Balakot airstrikes – in weeks before a national election – has had many mesmerised.
The effect can be felt even a fortnight after the event, although it is unclear if the spell will last until polling day. The prime minister is sitting pretty, very pleased with his war-like manoeuvres which may fetch him extra votes. This could make up for anticipated vote-loss on account of shoddy governance and lofty disregard of the interests of the poorer sections – a wide swathe on the demographic map.
Ironically, Pakistan’s prime minister is sitting pretty too, savouring the adulation of the faithful. It appears that everyone is pleased with Pulwama and its after-effect. Balakot has turned out not to be a zero-sum game in which only one of two sides gains.
Indeed, Balakot was India’s crescendo moment with our Mirage 2000s crossing the line and raining down smart explosives (whose results in human casualties, if any, are unknown).
Pakistan’s high-point was not long in coming as its F-16s returned the compliment mid-morning a day later by violating our airspace in broad daylight – the Indian Air Force jets had spooked the Pakistanis when it was pitch dark – and discharging ordnance in the open grounds of a military compound near the border, just to make their point.
We said we hit a terrorist training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, and it was not our intention to attack the Pakistani military. But the Pakistanis were having none of this. In their reply, they hit our military. More than tit for tat accomplished.
One fighter plane lost on each side, but that’s small beer. For Pakistan a pilot lost, for India a pilot captured and swiftly returned in a grand “gesture of peace”.
Modi had his “revenge” for Pulwama (although he was shooting a film in Corbett National Park when the CRPF jawans fell in southern Kashmir and reportedly didn’t stop filming). Just weeks before the Lok Sabha election, this was really all he was after.
Less than a fortnight later, he would tell an Ahmedabad election rally in his native Gujarat that it is “in my nature to settle scores, and to chase and beat you up inside your own home”. In this vulgarity of prime ministerial expression, there was verbal chest-thumping and self-valorisation. In the theatrics of that moment, the Indian Air Force had not even an incidental role to play.
Imran Khan, on the other hand, is also brimming with satisfaction, with the British press praising his statesmanlike action in returning a prisoner of war without any fuss so as not to escalate hostilities, and one of his ministers declaring that his leader deserved the Nobel prize for peace for showing forbearance in a moment of military tumult (between nuclear-armed neighbours with a long history of fighting).
The score pretty much even on both sides, the high commissioners of India and Pakistan have returned to their posts after having earlier left for home “for consultations”. New Delhi is now even said to be giving thought to receiving a Pakistani delegation to work out details for the construction of a corridor through Pakistani territory so that Indian pilgrims may visit the Kartarpur Saheb gurudwara, one of the holiest Sikh shrines very close to the border. Just as well, of course. Better jaw-jaw, than war-war.
We limped back to the India-Pakistan normal in three days flat. So, what’s changed? What has been gained, other than election propaganda mileage for Modi? Observers are rightly confused.
But not our all-knowing ‘strategic community’, the gaggle of retired foreign service bureaucrats and military officials with ageing moustaches, who breathe fire and brimstone when it comes to Pakistan, hector other neighbours but advise caution in dealing with China, and recommend straightforward obsequiousness in interacting with the United States – exactly the sort of counsel Modi values.
These experts tell us that in bombing Balakot, we have drawn a new red line, that a new strategic doctrine has been revealed, that a no-nonsense posture has now been adumbrated in relation to Pakistan. Which is what exactly? That each time a terrorist incident of some magnitude occurs in Kashmir or elsewhere, our fighter-jets will be taxiing for takeoff to hit targets inside Pakistan?
Given the record since 2015, that means about twice a year on average, in some years may be three times. The way the Pakistani F-16s tore into our airspace just the day after Balakot (luckily there were no casualties on the ground to complicate the strategic picture), skirmishes possibly leading to a full-scale military conflagration may be on the cards about three times a year.
How is that for a strategic doctrine for nuclear-armed neighbours in the shadow of India’s “no first-use” nuclear doctrine meant to underline our peaceable temperament before a world audience of doubting Toms?
Another thought for our less-than-reticent strategic experts who flaunt their wares before breathless television anchors: how might an unconstrained Pakistan have reacted to an uninvited Indian incursion into its airspace if the Americans had not been negotiating with Islamabad to assist with the Taliban talks prior to a probable US withdrawal from Afghanistan?
... When the people of Kashmir are with the government, Pakistan-inspired terrorism finds the going tough. This was seen in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Manmohan Singh years. Sending planes to bomb terrorist camps inside Pakistan won’t end terrorist attacks against us. Terrorist outfits are by now entrenched so deep in that country’s social and political fabric that the army-controlled Pakistani state finds it expedient to use them rather than eliminate them.
---
*Senior jounalist and columnist based in New Delhi. A version of this article was first published in The Wire

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