Balakot air strikes: the end of the madman theory

If Pakistan thinks they can scare Modi by playing mad, the Balakot air strikes show that he can scare them even more. Pakistan's madman theory has been turned on its head.

WrittenBy:Sushant Sareen
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For nearly thirty years now, Pakistan has been playing the madman with nukes. The strategic deterrence posture of Pakistan has been based on first-use of nuclear weapons against any conventional attack on Pakistan, especially from India. Innumerable times over these three decades, Pakistani generals and politicians have, at the drop of a hat, threatened the use of nuclear weapons against India.

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Having convinced the world that they consider nuclear weapons as weapons of war not weapons of deterrence, Pakistan had successfully deterred India from using its conventional superiority to punish Pakistan for its relentless and remorseless export of terrorism. Pakistan’s strategy was based on not just convincing everyone that they were irrational enough to use nukes, but also being convinced themselves that India was rational enough to never risk calling Pakistan’s bluff.

Rationality is, however, a subjective thing, and irrationality is a game two can play. While it was perfectly rational for Pakistanis to play irrational, it was quite irrational for India to play rationally in the face of Pakistan’s act of irrationality. Many analysts and strategists had been advocating the need to call Pakistan’s bluff, but until the airstrikes on the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist camp in Balakot, Indian leaders preferred to play according to the Pakistani playbook. Balakot has, however, changed the playbook, not just India’s, but also perhaps Pakistan’s.

Actually, the first time the Pakistanis thought that there was leadership in India which was crazier than them was in 1998. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister for the second time, there was a degree of uncertainty in Pakistan on what to expect from the first non-Congress Indian prime minister. Within weeks of being sworn in, Vajpayee carried out nuclear tests on May 11, 1998. The three tests shocked Pakistan. But when two days later another two tests were carried out, the Pakistanis became hysterical. There was utter panic in Pakistan. They just couldn’t figure out what they were up against.

For the first time, the Pakistanis who had been playing mad on nukes felt that they were now up against someone who was actually and genuinely crazy. It scared the hell out of them and they felt they had no choice except to demonstrate their nuclear capability to restore deterrence. Later, when Vajpayee made a cryptic remark while addressing a public rally in Punjab that if Pakistan thought India would wait for them to use nuclear weapons before retaliating, it caused a lot of consternation. But Vajpayee had already lost the plot when he reached out to Nawaz Sharif and started the bus diplomacy. His strict directions to the Armed Forces to not violate the LoC during the Kargil conflict because of the nuclear factor convinced the Pakistanis that Vajpayee was no different from his predecessors. And when in 2002, despite ordering a mobilisation of forces following the attack on Parliament, Vajpayee did not opt for the war option, the Pakistanis knew that he had accepted and conceded to their deterrence.

In 2014, when Narendra Modi became prime minister, the Pakistanis weren’t sure what to make of him. For nearly two-and-a-half years, Modi made at least five attempts to engage the Pakistanis in a dialogue. His overtures convinced the Pakistanis that he would observe the red lines they had set. The first time they got a little rattled was after the surgical strikes in September 2016. But since that was a shallow strike, the Pakistanis seemed to shrug it off. But the Balakot airstrike is something else. It is the most emphatic challenge to the Pakistani deterrence till now. The Pakistani air raid was an attempt to restore the deterrence, and wasn’t entirely unexpected.

But what is undeniable is the fact that the old red lines no longer exist. A door has been opened, and space has been created by India to raise the ante in the face of a grave provocation from Pakistan. And however much they might pretend otherwise, the more serious players in Pakistan know that the rules of the game have changed. Their nuclear blackmail has been called out because the guys whom it was supposed to impress are crazier than they imagined them to be. The bottom line is that Modi has clearly conveyed to Pakistan that if they thought they can play crazy, he can play crazier. If Pakistan thinks they can scare him by playing mad, he can scare them even more by upping the ante. In other words, Pakistan’s madman theory had been turned on its head.

Don’t delve too much on the shallow air raid by Pakistan across the LoC–remember that India not just crossed the LoC but also the international border and struck in Pakistan proper. What needs to be looked at more carefully is the reaction inside Pakistan, not on the street or in forums like their Parliament, but of the people who actually call the shots. All those who were warning of a nuclear holocaust suddenly seemed to be piping down. Of course, they continued to talk tough, but laced it with a heavy dose of talking peace. The nuclear threat was alluded to, not brandished. The military spokesman while expressing resolve had stopped breathing fire and was actually talking of regional development and prosperity.

Suddenly, the penny seemed to dropthings could escalate beyond what Pakistan ever wanted. Even a couple of days after the air raids, the Pakistanis are on tenterhooksnot sure when, where, how India will respond. It’s not for nothing that the Pakistani airspace remains virtually closed for overflights and even domestic flights are operating on a narrow corridor west of the country. The fact that Pakistanis were telling the international community that the Indian Navy was moving towards Karachi, India was poised to launch missile strikes, the Indian Air Force was in an offensive mode and Army units were being mobilised was a clear indication that they felt that there was more coming their way.

Although some of this was the typical Pakistani alarmism and wasn’t necessarily based on facts on the ground, the important thing is that Pakistan thought this was quite possible, even likely, if not imminent. That the Pakistanis felt the Indians were quite capable of upping the ante further and going up the escalation ladder, is very significant because it means they can no longer be sure of India’s restraint. Already, one of Pakistan’s fundamental assumptions since the 2002 military stand-off is now being called into question.

The Pakistanis are convinced that Vajpayee backed down because of the pressure of the Indian business lobby and the international investors. Pakistanis now assume that because India is richer, and more developed, it has more to lose and will, therefore, always avoid an escalation. This is as heroic an assumption as some Indians assuming Pakistan’s reluctance for escalation is its poor financials. Post-Pulwama, it is clear that India’s riches aren’t going to prevent it from upping the ante, just as Pakistan’s bankruptcy won’t be enough to stop it from its jihadist addiction.

This is a significant departure from the old routine because it now indicates the likelihood that Modi’s ‘madness’ (and this is not meant in a pejorative sense but in a positive sense) has set a new benchmark for all future governments. While the Pakistanis are praying hard for Modi’s defeat in the forthcoming general elections, there is a very good chance that even if the BJP doesn’t retain power, whoever forms the next government will find themselves being measured up against this benchmark. In other words, future governments will have to live up to the baseline set by Modi on dealing with an outrageous act of terrorism from Pakistan. Public pressure and political compulsions could force the hands of future governments to strike inside Pakistan.

All this would, of course, be extremely distressing to the hashtag brigade that functions as Pakistan’s advocates, apologists and admirers in India–the #SayNoToWar and #GivePeaceaChance lot. The fact of the matter is that for the last 30 years that’s precisely what India has been doing–giving peace a chance after chance, and saying no to war. But that has neither stopped the war (the asymmetric kind) nor ushered in peace.

But will the so-called peaceniks batting for Pakistan agree to travel in the bus blown up in Pulwama? Or go to terrorist camps in Pakistan and preach their peace sermons there? Or even convince their ‘friends, not masters’ in the Pakistani deep state to stop exporting violence? Preaching the virtues of peace to the victim is just so easy, isn’t it? Well, it seems this virtue signalling has run its course and is no longer credible. Welcome to Naya India!

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