Former foreign secy and senior fellow, centre for policy research
The good news we were all waiting for has come. IAF officer Abhinandan Varthaman has returned to India after being held by Pakistan since his aircraft was shot down in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft at the LoC a few days ago. His return to freedom is a matter of great relief not only for his family, but also for the nation. Pakistan PM Imran Khan projected the decision to return him as a gesture of peace. The narrative on the Indian side is that Pakistan was compelled to do this because of intense international pressure and the tough stand taken by India. Some of our hyperventilating TV channels have even described it as a huge victory for India. Whatever be the motivation for this Pakistani action, it is to be welcomed because the return of one of our brave young pilots is a matter of celebration. It helps wind down the acute tension between the two countries. The situation could have become more tense and even dangerous if he had continued in Pakistani custody. The government having yielded to the temptation of triumphalism would have found it difficult to resist demands for further punishment of Pakistan, climbing up another notch on the escalatory ladder. When countries get locked into an action and reaction process it is difficult to control escalation. We should use the release of our airman to wind down from the competitive war-mongering that has begun to take hold.
India cannot but condemn Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism, and in this case, it is the perpetrator, Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which claimed responsibility for the Pulwama outrage. A swift and robust response was justified, and in that context, the air operation against the JeM facility at Balakot was carefully calibrated. It was described as a non-military preemptive action against a terrorist facility and not against any military target or endangering civilians. It was the Foreign Secretary, rather than a representative of the IAF or the Defence Ministry, who briefed the media on the operation. It was also conveyed that India did not intend to escalate the situation. If the hope was that this portrayal would dissuade Pakistan from retaliating with its own air power, it was a miscalculation. The use of the Air Force was a deliberate raising of the military threshold by India. Furthermore, this was an attack against a target beyond the LoC and deep in Pakistani sovereign territory. The use of the term ‘preemptive’ conveyed an intention to strike in future without waiting for a terrorist act to occur. Failure to retaliate, and retaliate with air power, would have signalled Pakistani inability to challenge the intended asymmetry sought by India. There is partial asymmetry because while India attacked a target beyond PoK, Pakistani retaliation stayed within the confines of Kashmir territory on the Indian side of the LoC. After this tit-for-tat air battle, are we confident that Pakistan has been successfully dissuaded from pursuing cross-border terrorism as an instrument of State policy? Unlikely. While India may have established that Pakistan will have to pay a higher price than hitherto for its indulgence in terrorism, this is not sufficient to change the strategic calculus in Islamabad. The capacity of Pakistan to inflict reciprocal damage on the Indian side in its retaliation reinforces, rather than alters, its current behaviour pattern. If this assessment is correct, military options alone may not suffice.
There is satisfaction that India has been able to mobilise international public opinion against Pakistan and impose diplomatic isolation on it. There is no doubt that there are few sympathisers that Pakistan can rely upon these days. The Balakot action did not invite international opprobrium against India. The fact that our External Affairs Minister was the chief guest on the foreign ministers’ panel at the recent OIC conference, despite Pakistani objections, was a setback for Pakistan. However, China continues to be a powerful patron and the US is back to acknowledging that Pakistan’s role is indispensable in Afghanistan. While India must keep up pressure on Pakistan using all available diplomatic channels, it must also accept that this has limits in the real world. There is a downside to this strategy. The more preoccupied India is with seeking condemnation of Pakistan, the more it advertises its inability to manage Pakistan. It generates a heightened anxiety about two nuclear-armed adversaries slipping into a nuclear confrontation. This opens the door to third-party mediation and international intervention in the subcontinent, which is an anathema to India but welcome to Pakistan.
Since Pakistan’s terror activity is centred on Kashmir, heightened India-Pakistan tensions inevitably draw international attention to Kashmir, and more so if the situation in the Valley deteriorates, as is happening currently. We should not have to return to a situation where Indian diplomats are constantly battling international intervention on the Kashmir issue. We may be heading back towards India-Pakistan hyphenation rather than gaining traction as an emerging regional and global power. Our real challenge is the growing influence of China. It would suit China fine if India is kept tethered to the subcontinent. Countries concerned about China look to India as a power capable of countervailing China, but India-Pakistan confrontation limits India’s credibility in that role.
We need a broader and longer-term perspective in which we seek to manage an adversarial relationship with Pakistan without losing sight of the bigger challenge of China. Nor should our Pakistan policy retard our emergence as a substantial regional and global power and instead expose our country to external intervention. Pakistan must not become entangled in India’s domestic politics nor serve as a proxy to target Muslims and Kashmiris. This makes it impossible to treat Pakistan as just another State, the policy towards which must be subject to cold calculations of national and security interests. Hopefully, when the dust settles on the latest events, we can begin to think on these issues afresh.
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