The die is cast

India’s government may want calibrated strategic escalation, but this genie will not be put back in easily.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: October 1, 2016 1:20 am
india pakistan, indo pak, surgical strike, surgical strikes, india surgical strike, pakistan surgical strike, india terrorism, pakistan terrorism, india news The India-Pakistan relationship is almost psychoanalytic. (Source: File)

We do not know the full details of the surgical strike along the LoC. But the official narrative around it has been professionally surgical. This was a limited strike to pre-empt terrorists from entering India. India acted within its rights. The target was terrorists, not Pakistan’s army or territory. It is for now envisaged, officially, as a limited operation. The diplomatic circumstances around the operation have used this particular conjunction in global politics, and India’s built-up diplomatic capital well. But in the wider discourse and ideological framing, there is a sense, to use the line attributed to Ceaser when crossing the Rubicon: Alea iacta est (the die has been cast). The operation itself is not unprecedented. But the operation’s public use as a statement of India’s intent and resolve is new. The operation, by its public embrace, becomes the declaration of a policy. Its immediate psychological effect has been to boost confidence in our capabilities. It will also, therefore, change expectations, and potentially, the assessment of future options. It enhances Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s standing. It gives him unprecedented political capital, both for his foreign and domestic agenda.

The operation is one in a series of diplomatic and political moves, so its full effect will depend on how that chain unfolds. It is too early to conclude anything. But what are the mechanisms to watch out for, by which this operation might have an effect? How might these mechanisms work? Do they suggest things will get worse before they get better?

In strategic terms, we are, whatever the government might stay, still in an ambiguous zone. We demonstrated that we will not succumb to nuclear blackmail; that the threshold before things go out of hand can be raised. But the real question is: What is the bandwidth? A “shallow” strike across the LoC is, at best, tinkering with strategic restraint. It is not abandoning it. It is not a form of action that either significantly degrades Pakistan’s capabilities, or compels it to change posture. The real test will come now, if both sides engage in discovery of what the new threshold is. This is not something that should be deduced a priori.

But the main mechanisms to look out for are political. The operation puts the Pakistani Army in a bind. The potentially most powerful effect of the operation may be to put some stress on the relationship between the military and non-state actors in Pakistan. While strikes like these are unlikely to degrade Pakistan’s capabilities much, they will, depending on the extent of casualties, raise the following question. Presumably, the non-state actors will demand greater protection, and hence increase the potential cost of using them. It is one thing to risk your life inflicting damage on the “enemy”; another to be sitting ducks without protection. The Pakistan Army cannot be seen to be abandoning its non-state assets and proxies. The second thing it could lead to in the short run is change of modus operandi: Instead of cross-border infiltration aimed at Kashmir and the border, there is more targeting of other soft targets. We will not see the effects immediately. Even if Pakistan had the assets and capabilities in place, it would be too obvious a coincidence were something to happen almost immediately. But the prospects for long-term escalation remain.

The second bind for the Pakistani Army is this. Pakistan’s initial response has been a form of denial. But that is to be expected. They will also want to control the narrative. It also gives them room for political manoeuvre. But if the Indian strikes are seen as humiliating, it is bound to have two effects. On the one hand, it will have repercussions on the institutional politics inside Pakistan. It could dent the authority of the current military leadership. India’s decision to release footage may have an influence on this politics. On the other hand, the fuel that powers Pakistani elites’ identity is humiliation. Pakistan has an extraordinary history of turning humiliation into a basis for new resolve. And here we may have crossed a Rubicon. As much as the army statement on the strikes was professional, the political and ideological sabre-rattling will go across the border as an attempt to humiliate.

The India-Pakistan relationship is almost psychoanalytic. The public triumphalism about this operation in India is not just cathartic, as if to say we are no longer passive victims. Let us not put too fine a point on it: Public discourse also has shades of blood lust. This blood lust is also evident in irresponsible sections of the Pakistani leadership. While the government may want a calibrated strategic escalation, the psychological escalation is now out of control. The government is doing a good cop-bad cop story: Responsible, statesmanlike articulation at the top, but through the party, a kind of ideological blitzkrieg on the other hand. At one level, the aggressive public posture is not an add-on: It is itself a part of the strategy to signal that Pakistan should not escalate, because we are capable of anything. But such psychological passions will need to find their recompense on both sides, particularly if there are casualties. In India this psychological recompense is also needed for the fact that we have, for the moment, lost Kashmir. More than 80 days of curfew is a deep moral loss, no matter what we do to Pakistan. This genie will not be put back in easily.

There is widespread exasperation with Pakistan. There is also a leadership vacuum in global politics: From Syria to Afghanistan, the US is disengaged or stuck. China’s overreach and ideological imperatives make it difficult for it to be an effective international actor in diplomatic terms. This vacuum has given India some breathing space. But this space has, paradoxically, been a consequence of India’s relative restraint. It would be foolish to assume unequivocal support for India if hostilities escalate. The international community may be exasperated with Pakistan. But in a global leadership vacuum, there will also be wariness of action that challenges the authority of the Pakistani military beyond a point.

The strategic and diplomatic thinking may be calibrated. There is a possibility that India will say, “we have made our point, “ and Pakistan will say “we have got it”. This will be the rational position to take. But there is reason to worry that this may not come to pass. This is because in both India and Pakistan, regimes have now tied the mast of their popular legitimacy to taking strong action against the other. That is not a reassuring thought.

The writer is president, CPR Delhi and contributing editor,’Indian Express’.

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    Anonymous
    Oct 1, 2016 at 9:13 pm
    United States has as been doing the same with drones in stan. Why cant India?
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      Eklavya
      Oct 1, 2016 at 12:29 pm
      Poor journalism, offering nothing worthwhile. Why does IE publish meaningless drivel from this writer week after week?
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        Gaurav Maheshwari
        Oct 6, 2016 at 1:15 pm
        I just feel like I wasted my 7 minutes
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          Tridentupurass
          Oct 1, 2016 at 9:42 pm
          Is the author from stan?
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            K SHESHU
            Oct 1, 2016 at 2:30 pm
            The action has just started... it takes time to kW the repercussions . The opposition also can retaliate ... only people on both sides are losers
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              Abhijit Ray
              Oct 1, 2016 at 7:30 am
              Ask those people who are permanently maimed for no fault of theirs, the significance of surgical strike. Ask the soldier going on leave, who was burnt to death importance of surgical strike. It releases us from mental blockage of consequences of attacking terrorists inside stan. Yes there is enhanced possibility of counter attack. But our restraint did not stop stani army. Our restraint had emasculated Indian soldiers. We may lose international brownie points in case of escalation. What is more important is we shall fight and restore our pride. No country takes as much battering as India did, and not respond. Did China care when they took Tibet? Why not give Arunachal to China, Kashmir to stan, am lets give freedom, same for Hyderbad and Mallapuram. That way we shall have strategic restraint, international pat on our back and peace at home.
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                AML
                Oct 1, 2016 at 7:33 pm
                stan, through its non-state actors, has successfully launched many "surgical strikes" and continues to have that capability much greater than India'slt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;India's single success in this type of warfare is just a minor achievement. The celebration in the streets is, therefore, premature.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;What India needs to do is to make its borders itotally impervious. That would be the least expensive defense in the long run.
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                  AML
                  Oct 1, 2016 at 9:53 pm
                  stanis will shoot down Indian drones. They dare not shoot down US drones. Further, the US drones are used in stan with tacit, but secret, agreement of the stani government. Also, stanis need the largesse paid by the the American taxpayer.
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                    AML
                    Oct 1, 2016 at 6:23 pm
                    Talking about surgical strikes, stan, acting through its non-state actors, has been far more successful. Their success rate has been more than 5 to 1. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;stanis can justly say, "So what, we have been conducting successful surgical strikes for many years. We are smarter than you. We do not brag about it, we just deny it. We go further, we tell you that you did it yourself. Ha Ha."lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;So, in terms for for tat, stan is way ahead.
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                      Anil Tandale
                      Oct 1, 2016 at 3:44 am
                      Will Mr. Mehta attempt to articulate where the Lakshman Rekha to be drawn? Yes the genie could not be put back, but who is the cause? After suffering humiliation in 1971, the peace between the neighbors could have been sealed with exchange of POK with 93000 POWs, why the aggressor from 1947 till now was allowed to keep the trophy of POK? What were the achievements of 1971 war - except two Islamic states on eastern and western borders. Time is coming to impose peace forever keeping in mind high costs of 70 years. Every day the "self proclaimed intellectuals" are painfully delivering reasons to pardon the progeny of Ghaznis. We need resolve not excuses and imaginary fears. The greatest fear is the fear itself. The promoters of Aman ki Asha have not enrolled any of their kids in the defence forces. The anti-reservation protagonists of merit must discover that those who get seats in AIIMS never serve in villages. The doctors under 69 percent reservation quota of Tamilnadu are made to serve compulsorily in rural area. These arm chair thinkers are always tinkering with the ideny and integrity of this nation.
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                        Arvind Kejriwal
                        Oct 1, 2016 at 1:45 am
                        Pratap bhanu Mehta is a non state et to stan. He hid it so well that we were fooled into thinking that he is a balanced columnist.
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                          R S
                          Oct 1, 2016 at 8:07 am
                          The writer has not expressed himself against the Army's action. He has analysed all the possible implications. He has not blindly praised the strikes. It seems that that is what a lot of people object to!
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                            R S
                            Oct 1, 2016 at 10:14 am
                            If the terrorists get nuclear weapons, they will probably use them against India. It appears that they don't have them. Strikes against terrorists will leave the nuclear weapons untouched.
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                              R S
                              Oct 1, 2016 at 6:14 am
                              A very sensible article. We now have to regain the support of the Kashmiris. If we have it, stan can't do anything much. The PM is in a stronger position now and he needs to use his power wisely. And his party must not embarr him again.
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                                Balachandran Doraiswamy
                                Oct 1, 2016 at 2:55 pm
                                Kashmir can never be compromised as states like Punjab, Rajastan and Haryana will become dry as the Indus and its tributaries originate from Kashmir only and the rouge state stan will deny water to India if Kashmir becomes part of stan. Also stan will give trouble from Kashmir to our other states from Kashmir. The author did not condemn stan's terrorist activities or the Hurriyat for instigating the stone throwers.Other other hand he is trying to criticize India for the 80 day curfew In Kashmir. National and Army's pride was restored after the surgical strike which the author is refusing to accept. Height of hippocrazy
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                                  debabrata
                                  Oct 1, 2016 at 4:40 am
                                  Biased as he always is against the bjp, this analysis fails to highlight one of the major fallouts of this surgical strike- that is the balance of power between the civilian government and the military. A democratic stan free from the influence of its hawkish military is good for all...afterall it is the patronage of the stan army that lends legitimicy to terrorists like hafeez sayeed. A discredited military shall strengethen the hands of the civilian government and stop it from taking orders from the army. Modi has appreciated this fact and must be lauded for this.
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                                    Purna Varma
                                    Sep 30, 2016 at 11:31 pm
                                    It is the curse of Indian Media who becomes the jury and judge in their analysis instead of standing behind the nation. Some recourse has taken place for the first time. We dont need Pratap's interpretations on it. Such analysis pay puts or creates larger than life of porkishaitan establishment.
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                                      Dillip Patnaik
                                      Oct 2, 2016 at 12:25 am
                                      The writer is naive and dysfunctional.
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                                        Citizen
                                        Oct 1, 2016 at 1:32 pm
                                        We could see steady but increasing escalation of violence that could result in destabilizing the entire region, unless a lasting political solution to Kashmir issue is found soon.
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                                          T P
                                          Oct 1, 2016 at 12:06 pm
                                          It is very difficult to decipher the intent of MEHTA or for that matter any of these Peaceniks.
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                                            Gopal
                                            Oct 1, 2016 at 4:18 am
                                            Based on past behavior, it is reasonable to expect that stan will respond and the for tat will go on. The big difference from previous times is that stan will pay a price instead of only India bearing the brunt. By raising the costs of terror for stan, it creates space for them to gain something by halting terror. It is that simple. Obsolete thinkers have mr Mehta refuse to see the common sense.
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