IN the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, a US president’s re-election prospects look dim as a sex scandal threatens to dominate media coverage of the campaign.
Enter Conrad Brean (played by Robert De Niro), a spin doctor who commissions film producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to fabricate a war with Albania to divert public attention from the scandal. News clips of ‘Albanian brutalities’ shot in a Hollywood studio are fed into the mainstream media, and soon, a shrill jingoism dominates the public discourse. Of course there’s no fighting, but such is the power of fake news that people soon believe America to be locked in a life or death struggle against tiny Albania.
Does any of this sound familiar? While the scenario could apply to Donald Trump, it is currently more relevant to Narendra Modi’s India where the incumbent faces a tough re-election battle in a few months. In an increasingly jingoistic country, a ‘pre-emptive attack’ plays well with the electorate. Never mind that Indian bombs managed to blow up a few trees, damage a small wheat field and slightly hurt an elderly resident near Balakot.
For a day, Indian euphoria was something to behold. Following events on Twitter, I was taken aback by the amount of hatred and bile, combined with a hysterical triumphalism, that Indians were posting. Pakistani Twitterati were more restrained, apart from some gung-ho keyboard warriors.
On NDTV, the Indian news channel, a veritable parade of retired generals, air marshals and diplomats vented their fury, and repeatedly demanded that ‘Pakistan be taught a lesson’. Any moderate voices were immediately drowned out by anchors baying for blood.
It is doubtful if the PM’s offer for talks will be accepted by India.
But this chest-thumping has been scaled back following the downing of an Indian jet and the capture of its pilot over Azad Kashmir. For the time being, Indian triumphalism has been deflated, particularly after the truth about the Balakot raid has emerged.
So what now? I don’t often agree with Prime Minister Imran Khan, but I thought his recent speech to the joint session of parliament struck the right note of gravitas. His decision to return the captured Indian pilot was entirely appropriate, and has given Pakistan the high moral ground.
But I doubt if his invitation for talks will be accepted by India: with Modi in full election mode, any steps towards peace might lose him votes among Hindu nationalists who form the bulk of his supporters. And in a tight contest against a resurgent Congress, the Indian prime minister is unlikely to show any flexibility.
The best outcome would be for both sides to declare victory and de-escalate. The risk of cross-border incursions spiralling out of control is too awful to contemplate. Already, the cost to Pakistan in terms of cancelled flights due to the closure of our airspace has been very high. Tens of thousands of passengers have been stranded, and the mobilisation of troops on the border is a very expensive business.
Despite the looming elections in India, Narendra Modi needs to focus on the fact that despite his country’s economic success, hundreds of millions of its people are still desperately poor. A war — specially a nuclear conflict — is the last thing India needs. And what’s true for India applies equally to Pakistan.
People on both sides talk glibly of nuclear war without realising the implications of such a holocaust. Apart from the massive casualties caused by the initial blasts, winds would scatter radioactive isotopes over thousands of miles. Agricultural land would be rendered infertile for years, and babies would be born with deformities for decades.
Imran Khan was right to warn his Indian counterpart of the danger of events spinning out of control. Most wars have begun through a series of misunderstandings and miscalculations. And as many countries have discovered to their cost, wars are easier to start than to end.
In the present stand-off, it would appear that neither side has the stomach for all-out war. The Indian government probably calculated that Pakistan’s options in responding to the Balakot raid were limited, and the bombing would satisfy the public’s demand to ‘teach Pakistan a lesson’ following the Pulwama incident. Modi probably saw the electoral advantage of a short, sharp strike.
But hostilities, once launched, seldom follow the trajectory charted out by military planners. Not only did Pakistan respond, but it did so in a way that has largely silenced Indian warmongers.
However, the situation is still fraught with danger. The temptation for India to escalate in order to appear strong could yet push both countries into a wider armed conflict. How long would it take for nukes to be deployed in such a scenario?
The Kashmir conflict has been on the back-burner for most countries as well as the UN. But the risks inherent in the volatile situation have been demonstrated by the most recent hostilities across the Line of Control. Perhaps now the world will sit up and pay attention.
Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2019