Stick to political theatre, it is safer than risking war with Pak

The terrorist attack at Pulwama, killing 40 Indian soldiers, provides Narendra Modi a huge but risky chance to portray himself as the toughest politician in India. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s victory in the 1999 Kargil war helped him win the next general election. Can Modi use Pulwama to do the same?

He must avoid military action, which could backfire badly. Far wiser would be new forms of political theatre, similar to his “surgical strikes” in 2016, in retaliation for the attack on our armed forces at Uri. That satisfied the public demand for action without risking dangerous escalation into all-out war. Something similar is needed now.

I call the surgical strikes political theatre because they were strategically empty and militarily only fleabites. In some cases, Indian troops went barely a kilometre or two into Pakistani territory. The damage they did was so modest that Pakistan’s first reaction was to deny that anything had happened beyond the usual border skirmishes. One Pakistani official sneered, “How is it possible that the target of a surgical strike has no idea it took place?”

This explained why Pakistan did not retaliate. Fleabites do not cause military escalation. However, the surgical strikes were portrayed by Modi, and hailed by the Indian media, as a great military success. It burnished the image of Modi as a strong leader who taught Pakistan lessons that earlier Congress governments dared not.

Once the euphoria abated, events soon proved that the surgical strikes were a strategic flop. They failed to check terrorism or Pakistani support for it. Insurgency-related fatalities in Kashmir actually went up from 267 in 2016 to 358 in 2017, and estimated infiltrations from 371 to 406. Civilian deaths increased by 166%. Now, the Pulwama attack proves that the surgical strikes have not deterred future attacks.

But even if the surgical strikes failed strategically, they constituted clever political theatre. A good politician satisfies the public blood lust and demand for revenge by finding solutions that soothe angry voters without risking dangerous military escalation. The surgical strike was good politics, even if strategically empty.

Between now and the elections, can Modi launch another surgical strike or bombing of terrorist camps in Pakistan? Very risky. After the last strikes, Pakistan warned of retaliation against even fleabites. It is on 100% military alert, every possible target is guarded, and contingency planning for retaliation is complete. Last time India took Pakistan by surprise. That’s now impossible.

If India attempts another surgical strike but suffers heavy casualties, Modi will be castigated by opposition parties, and could lose rather than gain votes. Ditto if Modi sends bombers across the border to hit terrorist camps, and Pakistani missiles shoot these down. Remember US president Jimmy Carter’s attempt to rescue US hostages in Iran in 1978? His helicopters were caught in a storm and crashed. He had hoped that a dramatic rescue would help him win the next election, but the fiasco ensured that he lost. This holds a lesson for Modi.

Pakistani PM Imran Khan has to defend his own tough image, and is determined not to allow an Indian victory. He is well armed and can inflict substantial damage. To begin with, a military exchange may be limited to military targets, but if Pakistan seems to be losing, Khan will surely raise the ante and attack economic targets. Pakistan’s missiles can easily smash nearby targets like Gujarat’s giant refineries and Bombay High offshore fields, crippling oil supplies. India can hit Pakistani refineries and power stations too. But even if escalation to nuclear weapons is avoided, the result will be massive mutual economic damage that does nothing to solve terrorism, and will probably worsen it.

One alternative is covert action to attack targets in Pakistan. This is unlikely to provoke military retaliation, and so reduces the risk of outright war. India must have undercover agents in Pakistan, but their effectiveness is unproven. All worthwhile targets in Pakistan are on high alert, so attackers could be decimated.

There remains innovative political theatre. Many old terrorist camps, or offices of terrorist leaders, may be mostly empty or inactive. Hence they may be unguarded or lightly guarded. Why not use covert action to blow these up, and then exaggerate the damage done and casualties inflicted? Much creative video manipulation is possible to give the impression of a major success. The media will readily lap up tales of victory, and opposition parties will look unpatriotic if they object.

This is only one example of theatre. Modi can doubtless think up others.

Is this too cynical? No more so than the surgical strikes.

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