February 2019 saw another military jousting between India and Pakistan as a consequence of the Kashmir dispute. India’s unprecedented use of airpower for “pre-emptive action against non-military targets” —post the particularly costly attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama district, has set a new normal. The normal is of muscular unexpected responses which have a high volatility factor.
Jul 2019 is going to see a sequel of the famous 32 year old blockbuster “Top Gun” titled “Top Gun: Maverick”. The protagonist in Top Gun called Lieutenant Pete Mitchell (played by Tom Cruise) is a proactive naval aviator who doesn’t go by established norms (hence having the call sign “Maverick”). The opening scene in the movie has him utilising risky manoeuvres with a Soviet jet which makes the Soviet pilot “bug out” (lose his nerve).
The Pulwama terrorist strike made India resort to a risky move to ‘bug out’ Pakistan. In spite of the loss of a MIG-21 and capture of the pilot (an Indian Pete Mitchell in his own right) by Pakistan— Pakistan did ‘bug out’. This was apparent from the manner in which the Prime Ministers of the two countries presented themselves on TV. Mr Imran Khan was clearly making efforts to put the genie it had unexpectedly released, back in the lamp. Mr Narender Modi was carrying out with his ‘business as usual routine’.
The repetitive terrorist strikes by Pakistan based extremists have made India insensitive to pin pricks. They do not wake up the ponderous Indian elephant unless they result in large casualties or are particularly outrageous. In fact there is a degree of ‘Pakistan originated terrorism’ fatigue in India. On the positive side it negates the result of terrorist attacks in India and reduces them to mere statistics —not too different from the road accident or violent crime casualties, which take place every day. The Pakistanis therefore have to escalate the level of attacks in case they want the attention of the Indian public. This increases the risk to them of an escalated Indian response which had happened post Uri and now post Pulwama.
Both India and Pakistan are aware that the populations in both countries view the Kashmir dispute as a zero-sum game. As one of the pilots in Top Gun states: “Remember, boys, no points for second place.” For Pakistan’s rulers, the game is a question of ego, a message they have sold to the Pakistani population. The ego connotation is reminiscent of another classic Top Gun dialogue “Son, your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash!” Even if we say that India too has an element of ego on the line, India in its economy has a body which can cash the cheques. Pakistan can do that only with borrowed money. Someday the lenders will dry up and the cheques will bounce.
The Indian strike at Balakot has gone a rung up the escalation ladder. The form of response makes it clear that Indian restraint is now passé and it will respond with unquestioned escalation to future major provocations from Pakistan based terrorists. The world knows this and will have to redouble its efforts to end the scourge of state-sponsored terrorism. This could portend well for the world, even it gets the Kashmir dispute into multilateral spotlight. Chinese presence through the CPEC which transits Pakistan Occupied Kashmir has already brought a third party in the dispute.
This piece ends with a dialogue from Top Gun delivered by Maverick— addressed to those sceptics who doubt the kinetic efficacy of the Indian strike at Balakot.
“It’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”