The markets slid in Karachi and Mumbai in response to the war drums. Ergo: there is no appetite for war in either country. India’s record is more emphatic. Manmohan Singh won the 2009 election after the December 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai without firing a bullet at Pakistan. He ignored the TV warmongers, but was laid low by his corrupt political allies.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee scraped through while losing his vote count in the 1999 elections following the Kargil War. If that was the reward for advertising India’s victimhood narrative, replete with body bags, no politician should wish for the high cost and the diminishing returns.
Vajpayee had likened Indira Gandhi to Goddess Durga for her leadership that helped break Pakistan from it eastern flank in 1971. Yet she imposed emergency in 1975, such was the opposition’s fury in the intervening years, war or no war. Winston Churchill was shown the door once the war was over. Therefore, the crystal gazers seeing war drums as catapulting Mr Modi’s popularity in Uttar Pradesh or Punjab polls should stop watching TV.
In fact, after the drumbeats that triggered a run on sweetshops by patriotic revellers, some Indian channels were back to their default banality on Friday. A patriotic song filmed on the charismatic Dilip Kumar decades ago was harnessed to accompany Prime Minister Modi’s victory march. “I have given you my heart, my country, I will give you my life too.” It is another matter that Dilip Kumar was never forgiven for accepting a civilian award from Pakistan.
Interrupting the emotions-soaked song was lead news for liquor barons and tipplers. The Patna high court had reversed the Bihar government’s imposition of prohibition. Life was normal in India on Friday as it were, barring the security alert in Delhi and other sensitive cities, and of course, on the border.
Three days before the strikes, which the Indian army claims to have carried out in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, I asked George Perkovitch if there was an antidote to jingoism. “Unplug the TV,” he had counselled at a meeting to release his new book.
Virtually every claim and counterclaim in the ongoing military standoff between India and Pakistan seems to have been presciently anticipated and discussed in ‘Not War, Not Peace?’ Perkovich and Toby Dalton released their tome, by a coincidence, before the news of the raid in Azad Kashmir was to break the sound barriers in India, before Pakistan’s vehement denial came into play on Thursday.
Bereft of any punditry, the book offers insights from war-gaming between the two nuclear-armed rivals. What can their air force do and expect from the other, what can the navy do, what can the army do. Both are deemed rational, and both are capable of making a bad calculation. Sample a scenario the book discusses, closely anticipating the events that set off the current crisis, or how far it could go from here.
In the chapter on covert war, Perkovich and Dalton quote a conversation with a high-level Pakistani security official one or both of them met in Rawalpindi in 2013. The official recognised the implications of a roughly symmetrical balance with India at sub-conventional, conventional, and nuclear levels, the authors say. “There is a realisation on our side that these games have to stop,” the Pakistan official told them. “But they have to stop mutually.” India was stoking violence and insurgency in Balochistan and Karachi, the man claimed. Since when, he was asked. He recalled that India’s covert work had stepped up after the Mumbai attack. Thus Manmohan Singh comes out as the author of India’s Balochistan and other covert work. Modi only put his own name on this ongoing mission.
In fact, there is another unintended criticism of Modi, albeit indirectly in the book. A former top-level Indian policymaker explained the problem of keeping things covert in a November 2014 interview. “You need political credit at home to be seen doing something. But to be effective, what you do should not be visible….The jihadis and their supporters seem to respond to covert messages. But such actions are so closely held we don’t get political benefit from them…So the two imperatives work in opposite directions: the need for visible use of force, versus the effectiveness of covert force. If you want them to change what they are doing, you have to act secretly so they can save face when they change policy.”
The Indian official was speaking way before there was even a suggestion that Mr Modi would be the one to upend the multilayered policy Dr Singh had pursued with Pakistan.
A scenario conjured by Perkovich and Dalton comes close to the current standoff, though this war game factors air power in place of the army.
“The difference between attacks in Kashmir and in the (Pakistan) heartland points to strategic dilemmas for Indian decision makers. Attacking targets in Kashmir with air power, and not merely artillery as is normally done, would be somewhat escalatory. Yet it also would signal a measure of restraint, as compared with attacking targets in Pakistan’s two eastern provinces. Striking targets in Pakistani Kashmir would convey an Indian interest in meting out visible punishment against Pakistan, which could satisfy Indian public opinion and political imperatives for the government.”
The consequences of hitting the heartland, on the other hand, were unthinkable. However, in game theory it is the rationalists who make irrational choices. About finding the target in Kashmir, a BJP foreign policy adviser struggled with a bad brief in the book. “The terrorist infrastructure in POK may be ramshackle. These may be camps that could easily be rebuilt, so it’s true, we could hit them one day and they could reappear soon after. Also, there is a risk that strikes could kill civilians and create a propaganda bonanza for Pakistan and the terrorists.”
Whatever route the current standoff takes, the escalation demanded by India’s TV channels seems a distant dream. On October 15, leaders of China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa will meet Mr Modi at the BRICS summit in Goa. The next steps will follow from there. Russia has finished a rare military exercise with Pakistan; China is planning its economic future. They would be missing Manmohan Singh’s gentle finesse, but they will have to make do with what they have.
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2016