Thursday, 25 January 2018

War in 2018? 

By now it is de rigueur that there would be a war of words with Pakistan on a few landmark days each year. The usual tit-for-tat responses begin with army day since that is the first one on the calendar. It is followed by the acrimony on the commemorative day of the other two services and the by now annual India-Pakistan spat in the General Assembly. 

The last year saw the army chief owning up to the Cold Start doctrine at his first press conference in the run up to army day. This met with the predictable Pakistani response - described by an analyst - that even if the war's start is cold, the ending would be hot. On air force day, the air chief claimed that the air force could put out (in his words, 'locate, fix and strike') Pakistan's nuclear capability by conventional means using air power. Taking up the cudgels for Pakistan, its foreign minister warned all against any expectation of restraint on Pakistan's side. Navy day was rather subdued, presumably because navy has been in the dog house for damaging its nuclear submarine by keeping a hatch open; so much so that a Union minister feels emboldened enough to make disparaging remarks on its look-out for housing in South Mumbai. The annual UN General Assembly exchanges are now folklore (recall the juvenile phrases 'terroristan' (2017) and 'Ivy league of terror' (2016)).

The dangers of witnessing these unsavoury episodes is that it inures people at large into a false sense of complacency. They begin to take the implicit warnings in the threats exchange in their stride, unconsciously making these recurring, albeit identity-shaping episodes, a mundane part of daily, overburdened lives. However, the 'nationalists' among them welcome these and their applaud eggs key policy and decision makers to play to the gallery. 

Take for instance the instant case of the army chief on army day this time round burnishing his credentials as a bold and aggressive commander by threatening to call Pakistan's 'nuclear bluff'. The army chief said, 'We will call the (nuclear) bluff of Pakistan. If we will have to really confront the Pakistanis, and a task is given to us, we are not going to say we cannot cross the border because they have nuclear weapons. We will have to call their nuclear bluff.' 

While Pakistan's foreign minister belligerently invited India to test Pakistan's resolve, its Inter Services Public Relations bounded back with a relatively sober response, saying, 'The only thing stopping them [India] is our credible nuclear deterrence as there is no space of war between the two nuclear states.' Continuing in a self-congratulatory tone, the major general let on that, 'That's why they are targeting us through sub-conventional threat and state-sponsored terrorism.' 

The good part of this exchange is that bluffing is part of the deterrence game. Sides at play are to posture so as to convince the other side of respective implacability. Word play is better than sword play. The second good part is that India appears to have options and is liberally using these. Unfortunately, these are to mirror Pakistan's strategy of some three decades, of sotto voce aiding and abetting terrorism across the border. The third good part is that in periodic exchanges of invective and shadow boxing, the two states can let off steam. Fourth, there's some free political capital to be had with routine Pakistan bashing. It helps the government deepen internal polarization as it turns for the next ball at the top of its run up. Apparently, this year it is an eight-ball over, with eight states - including consequential ruling party dominant states - going to the hustings.

Happily, the two sides appear to have hedged their bets. The two national security advisers have reportedly met some four times over a period, though the foreign office admits to one such meeting. The confidence building measure of a weekly call between the two military operations heads is on. The border security meetings take place. The beginning of the year exchange of lists of nuclear establishments has been done punctually. There has even been a release of prisoners. India has not gloated overly over Pakistan losing out on American largesse as the United States turns a page. The figures from last year released at army day eve on the relative pain inflicted on the other side suggests the army has got the better of Pakistan's army (138 against 28!). Perhaps that - and US pressure - has driven Pakistan's army chief to plead with the civilian politicians to reach out to India in a meeting with senators dutifully leaked. All this gives India cushion for swagger. 

Against this scaremongering can only be just that. Nothing can quite go wrong. And if it does, India has the redoubtable trio Modi-Doval-Rawat at the helm. 

Pointing to an implosion coming would be to do what liberals must. In the Gujarat elections are portents. Just as losses in Delhi and Bihar forced the ruling formation to dig into its majoritarian and communal arsenal and retake lost ground, the twilight campaigning in the Gujarat elections forced the 'great communicator' to resort to outright lies (such as his predecessor supping with the enemy at that gadfly Mani Shankar Aiyar's residence). As the elections roll out through the year, more of the same can be expected, with the saffron clad head of India's largest state dispatched hither and thither for vote catching, Karnataka being an example. And yet, as Gujarat has shown, the magic might not work all the time. More wattage, more innovation in hate might be needed soon. 

Further, the political storm stirred up by the four puisne justices has yet to run its course. Showing up the vile reach into the judiciary of right wing politics, it may help voters (Hindus) snap out of their mesmerized state. While demonetization pains could not bring this about, there is hope in the air. It would not do to give up on democracy just yet, with a year to go to national elections.

That's when the army chief could be tapped to make good on his promise. The army chief who chickened out from having a go at Pakistan in wake of the 26/11 attacks, General Deepak Kapoor, was part of Aiyar's jamboree with the Pakistanis. This time the Indian army has its answers ready. Merely in anticipation of his marching orders, the army chief has already clicked his heels and shouted out, 'Yes, Sire; three bags full, Sire.' Deep selection of a chief has its advantages, of respectful and timely delivery of answers sought. He would be available to carry the can too.

To be true to General Rawat, he has an army that has practiced its paces over the past decade. The army chief having admitted to Cold Start doctrine itself suggests that it has moved beyond the doctrine. The army has no doubt watched the Azm e Nau series of Pakistani military exercises and seen the outcome in Pakistan's 'new concept of warfighting'. It has half a decade on since the advent of Pakistan's tactical nuclear weapons perhaps - implausibly in conjunction with the air force - found an answer at the conventional level. Not having tweaked its nuclear doctrine in face of this development, the nuclear answer is also likely available - not owing up to which is itself a dead give-away. To take exception to Rawat expression of confidence in the capability of the force would be uncharitable. 

The danger is in his confidence translating into over-confidence within his political masters. Convinced by his bluster, they could turn to him for bailing them out of a political tight spot. Surely, the judicial wheels let loose by the four judicial horsemen of apocalypse would grind to their logical conclusion should the ruling party be dislodged from Raisina Hill. A war can yet rescue it. Whoever said there cannot be a good, timely, short and sweet war.