This is the 17th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
One of my favourite English words comes from chess. If it is your turn to move, but any move you make makes your position worse, you are in ‘Zugzwang’. Narendra Modi was in zugzwang after the Pulwama attacks a few days ago—as any Indian prime minister in his place would have been.
An Indian PM, after an attack for which Pakistan is held responsible, has only unsavoury choices in front of him. He is pulled in two opposite directions. One, strategy dictates that he must not escalate. Two, politics dictates that he must.
Let’s unpack that. First, consider the strategic imperatives. Ever since both India and Pakistan became nuclear powers, a conventional war has become next to impossible because of the threat of a nuclear war. If India escalates beyond a point, Pakistan might bring their nuclear weapons into play. Even a limited nuclear war could cause millions of casualties and devastate our economy. Thus, no matter what the provocation, India needs to calibrate its response so that the Pakistan doesn’t take it all the way.
It’s impossible to predict what actions Pakistan might view as sufficient provocation, so India has tended to play it safe. Don’t capture territory, don’t attack military assets, don’t kill civilians. In other words, surgical strikes on alleged terrorist camps is the most we can do.
Given that Pakistan knows that it is irrational for India to react, and our leaders tend to be rational, they can ‘bleed us with a thousand cuts’, as their doctrine states, with impunity. Both in 2001, when our parliament was attacked and the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee was PM, and in 2008, when Mumbai was attacked and the Congress’s Manmohan Singh was PM, our leaders considered all the options on the table—but were forced to do nothing.
But is doing nothing an option in an election year?
Leave strategy aside and turn to politics. India has been attacked. Forty soldiers have been killed, and the nation is traumatised and baying for blood. It is now politically impossible to not retaliate—especially for a PM who has criticized his predecessor for being weak, and portrayed himself as a 56-inch-chested man of action.
I have no doubt that Modi is a rational man, and knows the possible consequences of escalation. But he also knows the possible consequences of not escalating—he could dilute his brand and lose the elections. Thus, he is forced to act. And after he acts, his Pakistan counterpart will face the same domestic pressure to retaliate, and will have to attack back. And so on till my home in Versova is swallowed up by a nuclear crater, right?
Well, not exactly. There is a way to resolve this paradox. India and Pakistan can both escalate, not via military actions, but via optics.
Modi and Imran Khan, who you’d expect to feel like the loneliest men on earth right now, can find sweet company in each other. Their incentives are aligned. Neither man wants this to turn into a full-fledged war. Both men want to appear macho in front of their domestic constituencies. Both men are masters at building narratives, and have a pliant media that will help them.
Thus, India can carry out a surgical strike and claim it destroyed a camp, killed terrorists, and forced Pakistan to return a braveheart prisoner of war. Pakistan can say India merely destroyed two trees plus a rock, and claim the high moral ground by returning the prisoner after giving him good masala tea. A benign military equilibrium is maintained, and both men come out looking like strong leaders: a win-win game for the PMs that avoids a lose-lose game for their nations. They can give themselves a high-five in private when they meet next, and Imran can whisper to Modi, “You’re a good spinner, bro.”
There is one problem here, though: what if the optics don’t work?
If Modi feels that his public is too sceptical and he needs to do more, he might feel forced to resort to actual military escalation. The fog of politics might obscure the possible consequences. If the resultant Indian military action causes serious damage, Pakistan will have to respond in kind. In the chain of events that then begins, with body bags piling up, neither man may be able to back down. They could end up as prisoners of circumstance—and so could we.
Also check out:
Why Modi Must Learn to Play the Game of Chicken With Pakistan—Amit Varma
The Two Pakistans—Episode 79 of The Seen and the Unseen
India in the Nuclear Age—Episode 80 of The Seen and the Unseen