Hot pursuit, cold start and bottled anger

Public anger must be addressed in the calm terms of analysis as it inflects history

Published: 23rd September 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd September 2016 06:57 AM   |  A+A-

As anger becomes the most palpable emotion dominating the Indian public sentiment after the latest killing of 18 army personnel in Uri, near the line of control, it has itself become a factor with a life and momentum of its own.

So much so that it calls for careful analysis. Not because it is not justified — that is not in question at all. An attack on sleeping combatants, whether by conventional armies or by non-state actors, richly deserves the word that is most often used: dastardly. (To eliminate the sense of tired cliché, one can give its original meaning: “showing despicable cowardice”.)

Not even in the Mahabharata was this act offered devoid of a sense of utter horror. No, we must talk about public anger in the calm terms of analysis because it is a factor that can genuinely inflect history and affect very serious eventslike war — and, therefore, any comprehensive security-military doctrine must account for it. And see what it does, and what it can do.

However cynical it may sound to use human emotions in this manner, an unemotional cost-benefit analysis is ethically necessary to deliver the maximum good in the short and long term. Therefore, leveraging it can be justified and not entirely a bad option. At the outset, from the government’s point of view, the anger of the middle classes and its core vote-base seems to be a bit of a bother. The media on both sides of the bitter divide have been out of control.

The Indian media has been virtually baying for retribution, a conventional or subconventional war — in short, a “befitting’ reply; the media in Pakistan, despite the bluster of the opinion-makers, have been lambasting Islamabad for getting itself into a little corner, ratcheting up a war situation yet again with few takers for its line of argument on the international forums.

If one judges both in terms of the propulsive effect it has on government in terms of egging it on to conflict, the Indian media will win that contest hands down.

Why this is a bother for the government? Because, it would simply not want its menu of options to be entirely circumscribed by the media. This is especially so because the public perception of the nature and character of the Narendra Modi Government — a perception its own managers had put out over the last two years (and, indeed, before that, from the time of the 2014 election campaign) — rests on a crucial promised difference from previous regimes. This was a putative willingness to meet aggression with an equal, if not a proportionately higher, quantum of aggression so as to create a real deterrent for ‘the’ hostile neighbour. The job of managing the weight of public expectation created by it, while weighing its own best options, therefore becomes an additional and real element in an evolving situation.

This is not necessarily a pure liability, however.

India-Pakistan relationswith the livewire Kashmir issue serving as a potential trigger for conflict-are host to a far-too-complicated set of dynamics to be decided during television debates or through media reports. But what may seem at the outset to be a crushing weight, a domestic sentiment on the boil, can itself be turned into a weapon of sorts. Public expression of sentiment, even filtered by the media, does point to perceptions gathering momentum on both sides. And in a mediatised age, for all the blackouts that countries can build up, the word does get across.

Across the border, for instance, the aam Pakistani may not be able to watch and respond to heated television debates n India, but the top brass at Rawalpindi would surely be keeping tabs on the evolving sentiment. This then becomes a parallel avenue to transmit a kind of signal to browbeat the other side.

Before one enters the question of how domestic sentiment is a factor, one must see the full menu of options before the government in a situation like this. At the higher level, the public understands the difference between a purely military and diplomatic response. And tends to judge them as polarities-as either/or options. But in a situation like the present one, where what we are presented with is a tangle of elements-a hostile neighbour, ‘enemy country’, which is party to a historic dispute, which too contains manifold ramifications — the military and diplomatic options are not mutually exclusive and must be seen as part of an integrated set.

This is better captured in the binary of ‘kinetic’ and ‘nonkinetic’ responses. The first, simply put, entails the use of hard, military force. The second, though, is not merely to be defined as the absence of force-rather it is the deployment of force through other means. For illustration, look no further than the economic blockades and other forms of boycott that were set up, often to great and lasting effect, against apartheid-era South Africa and nuclearising Iran. If not backed up by an ethically based consensus, it could cause the kind of devastation it did in Saddam’s Iraq. And if too loose and theoretical, it can be ineffectual — as in the cultural/ academic boycott of Israel. But in any event, the real pain it can cause is no less-and in fact more pervasive-than that caused by war because it is necessarily felt by the people. Now, no one would wish to see the people of Pakistan suffer for the follies of their deep state-but at the level of threat held out, especially because it can have implications on global funds flow, it is perhaps more credible and potent (and infinitely more sensible) than loose, amateurish talk about a nuclear scenario.

This is where the public and its expression can become a force. An anger building up on justifiable moral grounds, and the very evocation of war on account of that, not only forces Pakistan to revisit its tactics, but compels the international community to make choices. And contemplate a durable solution to what has become a global problem with a local dateline. This kind of an enlargement of the palette of options must be made an integral part of the security doctrinewhich must move beyond the temporary pleasures of Commando comic-style hot pursuit events that will take away only a few symptoms, and leave the underlying cause even more live. And for India to credibly move to create such a scenario, it must also assuage the other kind of anger-the one still bubbling over in the towns and villages of Kashmir. 

The author is Political Editor of The New Indian Express


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