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How Narendra Modi should read Imran Khan



There could have been several reasons behind Mr. Imran Khan’s ‘magnanimous gesture’ as he put it, the main being the intense pressure being put on Pakistan by the international community led by America and Saudi Arabia.

In sanctioning the deep strike by the Indian Air Force on Balakot deep into Pakistan in the early hours of the morning of 26 February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a calculated risk. The formal announcement the next afternoon by Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale that the mission had been successful led to jubilation in India, disbelief in Pakistan and alarm in the rest of the world. What the foreign secretary said in a prepared statement need not be repeated as it has been picked up by media around the world. The emphasis was on the non-military nature of the strike, limited as it was to terrorist training facilities. The action resulted, he stated, from credible intelligence that further Pulwama-type strikes were under preparation.

Later the Prime Minister in a public address after complimenting the air force for the success of the mission went on to say that for the past decades his predecessors despite attacks of a more serious nature had not acted. Mr. Modi has received accolades for the bold decision with many in the opposition feeling that the coming general election would have been a factor in his calculations.

That might be true, but only up to a point. He took the risk knowing that any miscalculation would lose him the election and any serious losses to the striking forces might well write finis to his political career as well. Not many have commented on the downside of the calculated risk taken by the Prime Minister. In this instance the narrative changed overnight, and the euphoria evaporated when it became known that an Indian Air Force pilot had been shot down and landed on the Pakistan side of the border. He had been taken prisoner. Calls for his immediate release mounted with every passing hour. A sigh of relief followed the announcement that he was safe, in good health and that he would be released the next day.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s release was delayed till the late hours of 1 March as he was asked to record a statement on camera by Pakistani authorities before he could cross the border. It was not clear whether he was made to record the video about his capture under duress. The video which was released to the Pakistani press at about 8.30 pm had several jump cuts indicating that it was edited heavily.
Earlier the manner of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statement betrayed the conflict in his mind and that of his generals; in the latter case, the impact on the standing of the military in the eyes of the people.

There could have been several reasons behind Mr. Imran Khan’s ‘magnanimous gesture’ as he put it, the main being the intense pressure being put on Pakistan by the international community led by America and Saudi Arabia. According to a commentator based in the US he attempted to present a reasonable face to the international community talking of his yearning for peace in the subcontinent. He emphasized that both countries were nuclear powers and, therefore, any escalation could lead to disastrous results. His ‘unconditional’ release fell in the category of a deescalatory signal.

In the same speech he warned the Indian leadership, ‘do not take this confrontation further’, saying otherwise Pakistan would be “forced to retaliate. (Mohammed Ayoob, The Hindu, March 2, 2019, page 2). Mr. Ayoob’s last paragraph is quoted verbatim so that India’s decision-makers can take note: “These facts make any future escalatory scenario look very scary. For, if pushed to the wall and in danger of losing control of the state, the Pakistani military can employ a highly reckless strategy that would unleash an unprecedented catastrophe in the subcontinent.” Further on he states that Pakistan military brass’s obsession with its honour and credibility have been severely damaged by its inability to anticipate and thwart the Indian aerial attack on Balakot deep inside Pakistani territory.

The Indian side having become used to similar statements from Pakistan’s leaders on the desire to take the process of peace forward after the attacks had taken place were wary of Mr. Khan’s handshake offer. Once the Wing Commander was safely back in their hands they hardened their stance to state that until concrete steps to dismantle the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) infrastructure were taken and Maulana Masood Azhar put on trial there could not be any talks or deescalatory steps. From Mr. Ayoob’s article it also becomes clear that the Pakistan Army is clearly in a bind. It is not in a position to yield to India’s demands without jeopardizing its future. The dilemma is more real for the Prime Minister who is their protégé. They made him the PM by incarcerating his predecessor Nawaz Sharif and co-opting the jihadi organisations into mainstream politics. Both Imran Khan and the army are beholden to the latter. Imran Khan had been backing the Taliban when his party led the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Prime Minister Modi needs to step back and re-assess the situation. His counterpart in Pakistan is not and perhaps will not be an independent player any time soon. However, it’s not in Imran Khan’s nature to accept defeat. As a cricketer he was a fierce competitor. He had to win. He had the will to keep at it till he reached his glorious pinnacle in winning the World Cup in Australia. The same goes for his doggedness in politics to keep at it despite setbacks till he achieved his goal.

Mr. Modi must understand the situation and ease up on the Pakistan Prime Minister provided he agrees and is able to get the military to agree to the tough conditions laid down for peace to progress. The latter will find it hard to come down on the tanzeems with a heavy hand having groomed them all these years. Most of them are embedded in Punjab from where the army makes the bulk of its recruitment, as do the tanzeems. Often the recruits for both are from the same family.

Notwithstanding this Pakistan immediately needs to commence deescalatory steps as it has been brought home to it and the world that India would not hesitate to strike deep into that country’s territory in case of future attacks. The army should have got the message that there are costs from further incursions by their proxies. By the same token the days of a thousand cuts to make India bleed are also over. Seeing the size of India and its army, salve can be applied to these cuts. In the case of Pakistan, they are hemorrhaging internally, a potentially fatal condition.

A few months after retirement the writer wrote an article in early 1996 that was carried in The Indian Express, New Delhi whose opening sentence read: “Another war between India and Pakistan could result in physical suicide for Pakistan, economic suicide for India and catastrophe for the subcontinent”. Neither of them were nuclear weapons states at the time. If memory serves right the title of the article “A Farewell to Arms”.




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