Diplomats have to be wordsmiths. So, when the foreign secretary of India used the phrases “non-military” “preemptive strikes”, they were, though clever, hardly surprising. Yet, there was something good about it.
Besides the clever phraseology, the air strikes and official statement by the government implied a twin assertion. First, that India would want to be seen as strongly responding to Pulwama going beyond the traditional restraint for which the Indian establishment is known. In terms of domestic politics, the dividend derived from such an assertion is quite obvious. At the same time, and beyond domestic politics, this assertion also sought to intimate to the international community a possible shift if Pakistan cannot be reined in by diplomatic measures.
But the official statement also sought to define the expected boundaries of this shift — that India does not want the situation to escalate into a military confrontation which, in any case, was a pre-destined miscalculation known to the MEA establishment. Any episode such as Pulwama could never turn into anything except tragic and hurtful. Whether to turn this also into a journey through a dark tunnel was the only moot question. With Balakot, India chose to opt for that journey. Immediately after the air strike, it appeared that in spite of the darkness the journey may involve, the flickering light of diplomacy (towards the world outside) and statesmanship (towards attempts to convert the moment into uncontrollable jingoism) may save the day.
The immediate aftermath of Pulwama and the airstrikes had yet another silver lining. In spite of the innuendoes from official circles about “security failures” by previous governments, the Opposition chose to respond much more responsibly than was expected, given its bitter relationship with the government. So much so, that serious questions about Pulwama, too, were brushed under the carpet.
Opposition parties correctly assessed that instead of creating a nationalist backlash, such issues may be deferred for purposes of both national interest and political prudence. Similarly, the official position and Opposition response right after the airstrikes were subdued. It could be said that both responses were mainly dictated by compulsions of the circumstances. The government’s response was circumscribed by the possible international fallout while the response by the Opposition was subdued by fear of political calculations. It looked like the journey through the dark tunnel could be quickly over. So far so good.
But the restraint shown by most Opposition parties was not reflected — even less reciprocated — in the reactions from circles “close to the establishment”. While the GoI response for international consumption had all the trappings of cunning and self-restraint, the ruling party and its friends were unable to resist the temptation to use the dark tunnel to their partisan and ideological advantage.
The prime minister, who has often failed to distinguish between the responsibilities of statecraft and the compulsions of political partisanship, kept using the context of Pulwama to suggest how his party and government (alone) were saviours of the pride of the country. His speech at the launch of the sainik smarak left a bad taste in the mouth. No wonder, the chief of the mother-organisation of his party was crass enough to say that the air strikes signified a fitting “shraddh” for the martyred soldiers of Pulwama (IE, February 27). He forgot that the art of leadership is in bringing out the best in your followers rather than expressing the worst of their prejudices.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the credit for representing the ugliest in this uncertain journey would surely go to the media. Ever since the Mumbai terror attacks, the overdrive of the media has been a topic of concern and discussion. In the latest episode, the media not only went overboard in its competition for eyeballs, it also engaged in a fierce competition over nationalist claims.
It is one thing for a government to choose to retaliate but quite another when the media hypnotises itself into the role of cheerleader for war games. Pulwama and the subsequent air strike by India were bound to generate considerable popular excitement and aggressive nationalism. But that inevitable outcome has been capitalised upon by the media and in the process, social media represented the most irritable and excitable sections eager to go to war with Pakistan. While the electronic media was raging, what with imagined picturisations of the air strike, the print media did not want to be left behind and in many cases, headlines declared a blow to Pakistan and worse.
Predictably, within a short time from this unfolding of the good, bad and ugly, real complications have begun to present themselves. A nation drowned in the din of self-declared victory would be unable to sanely grapple with those complications. While the degeneration of the media into a tool to whip up sentiment and shape public anxiety is bad in itself, within hours of the Balakot air strike, the abdication of responsibility by the media has aggravated this challenge.
On the morning after Balakot, we got into eulogising the sophistication behind the words “non-military preemptive” action. That was fine as a statement, but not enough either to influence the global community or to deter Pakistan from further action. In fact, India might have given Pakistan’s military establishment a perfect excuse. Since India claimed that it had attacked, it left the adversary with no option but to be seen as doing something in “defence” — so the irresponsible character of the state of Pakistan gets shrouded in its victimhood and its action masquerades as self-defence. Once that has happened, the 24 hour glory of India’s retaliation pales in the backdrop of clouds of a war.
Moments like Pulwama are indeed a test of tenacity — of governments and of the nation. It is not easy for any government not to retaliate instantly, because public opinion requires it and such action is needed also to earn the attention of the world. However, the complex question is how to act and the more complex issue is how to present that act. To warn the terrorist groups and their patrons, an action has to be lethal. But at the same time, such action needs to be kept low-key so that only the sufferer realises its effects. So, the question is not whether a government should have taken this or that action. The question is whether the brave soldier deserves to suffer for the publicity that the government may seek out of such action.
Unfortunately, Pulwama happened at a time when we have a government that lives off publicity and it happened at a time when the government was running short of publicity. Unfortunately, it also happened at a time when as a nation, we are more eager for exemplary rather than efficient retaliation. When tokenism rules, substantive policy, whether in the realm of security or elsewhere, is bound to be elusive.
The write taught political science and is based at Pune