Monday, 3 June 2019
Event management is no substitute for strategy

Event management that fetched Narendra Modi a second term was fully on display at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan during the swearing in of Team Modi 2.0, a perfectly unnecessary spectacle meant only to reinforce the Modi cult. Since it would not do to attribute Modi's second term to a manipulation of the voting machines or to an anti-minority animus among Modi voters, it can be charitably gauged that the voters were instead convinced by Indian crisis response, or better still, by the event management that attended the crisis response. As any information warrior knows, the internal public sphere too is target. Clearly, the information war effort was indubitably successful internally. 
It would not do to dignify the other Indian actions during the crisis with the label 'strategy'. The Pulwama episode has far too many questions tagging it to qualify as 'black swan' event. It set the stage for an air force riposte. Barely had the planes got back, Modi was off to Churu to attend a preplanned rally, comprising ex-servicemen to boot. That evening, he took a metro ride to another public engagement. Modi was clearly out to milk the opportunity, oblivious to Pakistani preparations for counter strike. His choreographers were apparently impressed by the sequence in the Oscar winning film Churchill in which Churchill character is depicted interacting with the people in the London underground after rendering in parliament the famous 'we shall fight them on the beaches' clarion call. It is another matter that Churchill escaped his security detail to mingle with the common man, whereas Modi's metro ride was patently for the cameras. Expectedly, Modi was nowhere on the screens the next day when Pakistan did strike back. 
A script cannot substitute for strategy. The air force had to go into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir airspace for a bit to get a better stand-off shot at their target in Balakot owing to cloud conditions. The stipulations on the air force were to not to cross over and to ensure against hitting a military or civilian target. A cloudy night forced the air force's hand, belying Modi's 'andar ghus ke maarna' boast. The cloud cover also prevented use of the missiles that could have recorded the destruction at the target end. There being no bomb-damage proof, 'success' of Balakot strike is better attributed to information warfare specialists. Since Modi by his own account based his decision expecting cloud cover to advantage the air force, the buck stops at his door. 
As for the other boasts (nuclear weapons not for 'diwali' and 'qatl ki raat'), these further put paid to any notion of strategy guiding actions. Modi - citing western sources rather than admitting to it - let on that missiles were readied to threaten Pakistan to force it to give back the Indian pilot captured in the Nowshera dogfight. This does not bespeak of strategy since the objective - getting back the pilot and preventing him coming to harm in custody - is not what missiles should be put to, especially against another nuclear armed state with like capability. Expecting Pakistan to abuse the pilot in its custody - after his captivity and conditions have been exposed in social media - is to be naïve of international relations and the place of the Geneva Conventions in it. Clearly, the rationale of readying missiles to pressure the release of the pilot is an after-the-fact one. 
So what was the original purpose of the missile readiness? Equally clearly, these may have been to deter the Pakistani counter strike, a measure that in the event failed. Pakistan was willing to chance its counter strike in real time, assuredly having readied its own missiles to prevent escalation by India in retaliation with missiles. This is a plausible strategic rationale for missile readiness. It is obvious that the follow through with the missile strike was not undertaken by India, using the excuse that Pakistan having chickened out and promised to return the pilot. 
Instead, the plausible reason for the lack of follow-up missile strike(s) is that India chickened out of countering Pakistan's gumption at Nowshera. In strategic terms, Pakistan's retaliation needed to be replied in a manner as to ensure India comes out on top, especially since India initiated the exchange with its Balakot aerial strike. This was necessary for moral and psychological ascendance, particularly since India claims that it has shifted the goal posts and more surgical and aerial strikes are to follow in the implementation of an Indian version of the 'mow the grass' strategy (a term attributable to India's strategic partner, Israel). Not following through with retaliation cannot be substituted with spin doctoring regards the controversial downing of the F-16 in the Nowshera dogfight. 
Strategically, India can be faulted for readying missiles as the next step in the escalatory ladder since their use is escalatory to a higher degree. The likelihood of their introduction into the crisis forced involvement of the Americans, who were up until then stand-offish and focused on Trump's talks with the North Korean dictator. Since missile readiness can be expected to trigger American de-escalatory contingency action, claiming missiles were on the blocks is meaningless. It can cynically be suggested that India provoked American intervention, hoping to be bailed out thereby. 
Limited land operations of the order of surgical strikes could have proven costly since Pakistan's army was surely hair-trigger ready. Conventional air power found wanting and surgical strikes by land not an option, limiting next steps to missile strikes - that would surely have forced international crisis management intervention - suggests the limitation of the template of military response to crisis. Therefore, rushing off to Balakot was not the best option, nor was the military option the only one. 
Another problem is in the legacy of the crisis for the next one. That India would be starting off with a deficit would instigate its overcompensation. Therefore, a higher threshold of Indian retaliation can be expected even if the trigger does not warrant it. The first set of Rafales is in by September. India tested a stand-off glide bomb from a SU-30 last month. Its Navy postured in the Arabian Sea for a long while even after the crisis. This included the aircraft carrier and the nuclear submarine (not the boomer). The latter can carry cruise missiles, which - incidentally - can also be nuclear armed. It is only by next year India would be in a position to impose on Pakistan. It is not without reason Pakistan fired off the Shaheen II missile even as Imran Khan congratulated Modi for his win on election results day. A crisis turning into conflict is therefore not unlikely, putting paid to the notion of willfully going across now and again in a mow-the-grass operation, à la Israel's occasional forays into Gaza and Lebanon. 
Though India might posture a willingness to escalate in order to deter better and acquire the ability, its ability to strategise continues to be suspect as the national security adviser has been carried forward. The same set of decision makers is in the cabinet's security committee, except for the foreign minister. While S. Jaishankar, the new incumbent, can be expected to live up to his tough image, the others will be informed by a political logic. They have the implementation of the internally-directed Hindutva project to attend to and cannot afford any setback. 
The balloon of national security toughness can dissipate in quick time, exposing their election time claims as hollow. Uncertainties surrounding military action are self-evident from the probable nullity of result of the Balakot strike; from the fratricide over Budgam that accompanied the Nowshera episode; and the fire aboard the aircraft carrier as it returned to station after its extended crisis-related deployment. If the friction that attends military action is this costly, the real thing is certainly nothing like the movie 'Surgical Strike'. It may well leave the 'emperor without clothes'. Besides, the event management surrounding the crisis having yielded results in a pocketed electorate, there would be little need from internal politics point of view to chance a crisis. 
The upshot is that the election time rhetoric is just that, rhetoric. India may not up-the-ante. This presumes Pakistani intent to provoke. The Security Council's noting Pulwama was through a press release. Pulwama did not find mention in the resolution arraigning the key accused, Masood Azhar. Knowing that Pakistan may not be provocative in first place, it makes sense for India to posture aggressively since it knows it would not be challenged to put its money where its mouth is. India can then claim its new line has checked Pakistan, even if Pakistan is not up to mischief of such levels in first place. It remains to be seen if India can have its cake and eat it too.