The morning of 27th February was a tense one on the Indian subcontinent. The situation between India and Pakistan escalated alarmingly as both sides gunned down each other’s fighter jets. Amid the confusion came reports that the Pakistani Army may have Indian pilots under their custody. In those hours, Indian viewers who switched on their televisions to watch news must have come across monologues such as this- “I may tell our viewers that we need to be prepared for sacrifices…we will loose lives but we must not lose our resolve…” An anchor sitting in a cozy office on a cold February morning, was ready for the possibility of an Indian soldier dying under captivity. It is hard to find any intelligent diplomat or an army officer to declare such propositions. But what Indian viewers have been seeing on news channels for the past two weeks, are nothing short of declarations of war. The question one must ask in these charged moment, is whether this bravado affects the recent decisions taken by the government? The short answer; there does exist a relationship between the two. 

Since both India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons, there have been moments which brought the neighbours on a brink of war. The most dangerous being in 1999, when the Indian armed forces engaged with intruders on the heights of Kargil. In all these cases, the conflict did not cross the nuclear red-line. And it is in this context that the recent Indo-Pak conflict has changed significantly since 1947. The nuclear deterrent has been used by Pakistan to wage a proxy cross-border terrorism, since the inception of Mujahideen in the 1980’s. Both sides know that a conventional war, a euphemism for a nuclear winter, will not benefit either side. But by using the deterrent, Pakistan has been able to destabilise the Kashmir valley and routinely butcher Indian army through proxies on a minimal cost. Despite international pressure and a dwindling economy, it has managed to remain a safe haven for terrorist groups, all thanks to its Saudi and Chinese friends. The nuclear deterrent kept India from retaliating even when terrorist groups struck Mumbai on 26/11 killing hundreds of civilians. This scenario changed when Indian forces struck terror basis across the Line of Control post attacks on its Uri base, or what is now called the ‘surgical strike.’ It gave a signal that Indian forces were capable of inflicting damage to terror pads across the border, without significantly escalating the situation. The recent “non-military” air raid on Balakot again proved that India was ready to the same again and that too in the most unexpected way. While one can scrutinise the success of the operation once the dust settles. It does have a lot of academic implications, as it shatters the earlier limitations that nuclear deterrence was thought to impose. India, in short, has redrawn the nuclear red-line.

If looked from a geo-strategic point of view, all of this sounds good. Or to be precise, it can sound good. But in the entire scheme of things, there also is a different factor at play; the charged-up ultra-nationalist atmosphere created by a warmongering media. In the case of India this is unprecedented. And it is not a coincidence that the channels who are selling war, also have a love affair with the Prime Minister.

It is not just the media who have been able to propel the government’s agenda. The ruling party’s president Mr Amit Shah, made sure to bring in Nehru’s “failures” on Kashmir, while boasting about the “surgical strike: 2” just after the Balakot incident. In fact, the national capital also saw many posters put up by the BJP which congratulated Mr Modi on his surgical strike: 2. When all the opposition parties passed a joint statement condemning the ruling parties blatant abuse of norms, the Finance Minister was quick to tweet that they were helping Pakistan by giving such statements. It is easy to conclude why the ruling party is jumping up the hysteria. For Mr Modi, from the disaster of Pulwama arose an opportunity. The government had failed on every front; from jobs to the economy and Mr Modi’s image was taking a toll. Now after such horrific attacks on a security convoy, the narrative shifted to national security. Never mind the catastrophic intelligence failure of not preventing a blast which used 350 kg of explosives, Mr Modi’s reputation on national security still remained unfazed. After all, it was he who had first issued the surgical strike. The fanfare around which also produced a blockbuster Bollywood movie by the same name. It was somehow expected that he would strike back. With polls around the corner, a second surgical strike was not a bad idea.

When looked at from a wider angle, the aftermath of such escalation somehow seems obvious. Now with two nuclear powers sending fighter jets in Kashmir, this is closest to a full-scale conflict you can get. But as Pakistan declared that the captive Wing Commander Abinandan would be handed over tomorrow as a gesture of peace, it ironically ended up taking a moral high ground. While India remains the victim of its sponsored terror attacks, the International community at the moment is more focused on preventing full-scale war between the two. This is what escalation has managed to achieve. India had the geo-strategic advantage, but when you base your foreign policy on electoral calculations, you seldom achieve anything worthwhile.

There are many consequences of this military face-off. One, unlike earlier instances there is no explicit arbitrator in the form of United States as Trump was busy in Vietnam during this escalation. It was India and Pakistan alone who started the process of de-escalation. Second, successive governments should make sure that military operations remain classified. Even if they are made public, they shouldn’t be sold as surgical strikes 3. Foreign policy decisions should remain independent of the domestic political landscape. As it is evident in this case, they turn out to be counter-productive. Mr Modi should now display statesmanship required of a Prime Minister and stop the rhetoric of a Prime Ministerial candidate. Thirdly, India should now make a comprehensive new strategy of handling Pakistan. Which should be capable of any military action, but handled by diplomats. India pressuring Russia and China to issue a joint statement against the backing of terror groups is one such start. And to those media anchors who still want a war to teach Pakistan a lesson: there is nothing nationalistic in getting evaporated by a nuclear blast.

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