After a suspenseful wait lasting hours, Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman had finally returned home on Friday night from his nearly three-day captivity in Pakistan.
Amidst deafening noises of celebrations back home, somehow quietly, a question that had till very recently animated in Indian public’s collective imagination – “how’s the josh” - has suddenly been replaced by another spine-chilling question – “how’s that”!
Those who would not agree with this would be in complete denial.
It makes more sense to analyse this latest escalation of action between India and Pakistan from cricketing parlance, as not only the two nations are cricket-mad but also the current Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, is a former cricketer and captain.
I will explain the context a bit later; however, what is clearly apparent from the latest escalation and subsequent de-escalation of hostilities between the two countries is that Pakistan’s Prime Minister has delivered a “diplomatic reverse swing” that none expected on the Indian side and was found completely blindsided. (A reverse swing in cricket is the art of swinging the ball when it turns in towards the batsman rather than moving away from him. Mr Khan was one of the world's finest cricketers in his sporting days.)
For uninitiated, Uri and Pulwama are two critically important incidents of terror attacks on India which had forced India to abandon its long-held holy grail of “strategic-restraint” in favour of “pre-emptive strikes” against Pakistan.
While Uri attack had happened in 2016, followed by a primarily ground-based punitive action by Indian armed forces across the Pakistan border, Pulwama is a very recent incident in the Indian state of Kashmir that precipitated the Indian Air Force to cross the border for the first time after 1971 India-Pakistan war.
Recently a Bollywood movie was made on Uri attack and the war-cry by the main protagonist “How’s the Josh” had captivated imagination of Indian masses, tinkering their nationalist sentiments. Kiwi-Indians would recall that war cry from the recent all-conquering Indian cricket team’s visit to New Zealand when the players celebrated their victory over Black Caps with the popular war cry – “How’s the Josh?.”
However, it is clear that the post-Pulwama script has unfolded in a manner that despite the wishful thinking of Bollywood movie-fans the question that is making ear-shattering noise is “how’s that?” and not “how’s the josh.”
Eleven days after Pulwama terrorist attack, on February 26, in the middle of the night, India launched air strikes on a terrorist training camp in Balakot, Pakistan, killing a large number of militants – a claim disputed by Pakistan.
Less than 24 hours later, Pakistan struck back by sending a few fighter planes in Indian Territory that were duly engaged in an air-combat with each side losing one aircraft without any collateral damage. Except that an escaping Indian fighter pilot landed on the Pakistan side and was taken in custody by its army and seemingly putting the Indian strategic community under intense pressure.
Imran’s “diplomatic reverse swing”
Pakistan Prime Minister Mr Khan immediately seized the opportunity and for the next two days called for de-escalation of hostilities, talked about peace and announced that the pilot would be freed – projecting himself as a statesman and messiah of peace – much to the discomfort of the current Indian political leadership and its supporters.
The Indian side has vehemently rejected any suggestions of depicting Mr Khan’s actions as of “moral high ground,” emphasising that the decision of releasing Indian pilot was more an outcome of India’s diplomatic and strategic pressure.
However, it seems that despite the Indian strategic community chooses to project the safe release of its pilot as their diplomatic and strategic victory, they have lost the “battle of perceptions,” in this instance.
It’s another matter that despite this loss of the battle of perceptions, India has firmly established its right of “pre-emptive strikes” against terrorist activity against Indian people and the territory.
Within the world of international relations, it is no mean achievement, even if it comes after a momentary blip of loss of a “battle of perceptions.”
The road ahead is not going to be as easy as presumed naively by many supporters of the current political establishment in New Delhi. Especially when the foreign-security policy, which is elitist by its nature, and rightly though, for the complexities it involves, has been brought down to the domain of populist contestation so evident on the social media.
Equally advisable is the fact that revving up emotions in 1.30 billion strong nation is going to create more problems than being already faced by the Indian nation.
Once emotions subside on both sides, it is pertinent that everyone understands, particularly Imran Khan, that the core issue leading to this escalation of hostilities was of terrorism.
It's an opportunity for him to cement his newfound global image of a messenger of peace by demolishing terrorist camps so brazenly operating from Pakistani territory.