India’s Mail Today newspaper this morning splashes across its front page the headline “War Panic in Pak as India Talks Tough”, and reports that Pakistan “scrambled its fighter jets over nearly all major Pakistani cities” yesterday.
Yet I have met no-one who thinks India will attack terrorist camps – or any other sites – in Pakistan, despite the noise that has been building up between the two countries since the Mumbai terrorist attacks last month.
Many people are of course wondering whether India will strike– and worrying that it might – but they can’t quite see it happening. I am sure India won’t, not this time anyway.
Why am I so sure? Because of the consequences. Pakistan would strike back. India would be blamed as the aggressor. Nuclear war fears would escalate, foreigners would evacuate, and the missiles would have done little or no real damage to the capabilities of Pakistan-based terrorists.
Furthermore, the strikes would not be a vote winner in next March-April’s Indian general election because a majority of voters would not thank the Congress-led government for putting their lives and the already-declining economy in jeopardy – possibly with lives being lost in a Pakistan counter-attack.
There is an alternative view that the country would applaud the government’s courage, but I doubt it. This is not the same situation as George W. Bush hitting at Afghanistan after 9/11 or Maggy Thatcher invading the Falkland islands in 1982. Both these actions were vote winners because troops were sent to the other side of the world and there was no chance of return attacks on the US or UK – apart from possible terrorist strikes in the US which could be blamed on the aggressors, not Bush.
India on the other hand would be hitting at its neighbour and recrimination would be instant, with all the down sides I’ve just mentioned.
So, in practical terms, is it silly of India – backed by the US – to be indulging in implicit threats of attacks on Pakistan, demanding “action” by Pakistan “or else” ?
Possibly so, though it has no option with the general election looming. Even though I believe there are few votes in a strike, Congress would certainly lose votes if it was seen to be soft on Pakistan and therefore on terror. That would open doors for voters to flood to the potentially tougher Bharatiya Janata Party and maybe even its strongman Narendra Modi.
But the fact that it is bluff is exposed by the way India’s message and threats vary day by day, while Pakistan fails to curb the freedom of leading terrorists despite international pressure to do so.
The Times of India, illustrates India’s soft approach this morning with a headline saying says “Patience Wearing Thin – Pranab Tells Envoys Will Have to Deal With Pak On Our Own”. That refers to foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, who spoke yesterday to 122 Indian ambassadors called to India for briefings. (They have come for a meeting planned for months but finally arranged a week or so ago as part, it appears, of the current war of words with Pakistan)
Kanwal Sibal, an unusually outspoken former Indian foreign secretary, wrote in the Mail Today last week that the government’s “feeble response” was “baffling”, prompting the editors to put up a headline saying “Irresolution Masked as Restraint” – (click here and go to page 10).
Recognising that limited military action might not be favoured, he argued for “politically meaningful measures” centred around breaking off all ties with Pakistan. This he suggested would strengthen India’s diplomatic hand and saved it from relying on others such as the US.
So what is likely to happen now? Possibly what Sibal suggests, plus a ratchetting up of the confrontation, with troops moving near both sides of the border – which would frighten the world about a potential conflict in the same way as happened in 2001-02 when there was a confrontation.
Then tempers will cool and life will slowly return to normal – till next time.
Is there an alternative to this perennial play acting? Possibly, if India dared do it and resisted the temptation to warn the world in advance.
After the current crisis has passed, it could position missiles aimed at two or three known significant terrorist targets in Pakistan (well away from military establishments and urban areas,) and fire them – without any warnings or threats – as soon as evidence points next time to terrorists coming from Pakistan. It would have to decide the level of terrorist activity that would trigger such a response and leave the firing decision to three top ministers.
As the missiles went, India would telephone Pakistan and the US and say there would be no more attacks, and would also go on world television within minutes and repeat the message.
That might, just, move the goal posts and change the balance of the diplomatic games– and it would be a vote winner because the US and other countries would surely stop Pakistan responding.
High risk, of course. Any other ideas?