04 Mar 2019 17:48 IST

Need for calm at a time of crisis

Amid terror attacks, pre-emptive strikes and border tensions, the core Kashmir issue remains ignored

‘Mazboot Bharat jolts Naya Pakistan’, ‘Proud moment for undefeatable India’, ‘1000-kg bomb exacts India’s revenge’, ‘Pak forces clueless and useless’, ‘Terroristan made to pay by forces’, ‘Napping Pak only talks big’ ‘Jai Hind echoes all over India’, ‘Pak wakes up in fear and denial’, ‘Pakistan spooked’.

These were some of the TV scrolls that Indians were witness to on Tuesday after 26 IAF jets, in a ‘non-military, pre-emptive action’, bombed a Jaish-e-Muhammad terror camp deep inside Pakistan territory at Balakot in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.

The TV channels’ hyper-jingoistic and grotesque warmongering threw all accepted journalistic norms out of the window. On Wednesday a leading TV channel was busy calling out Pakistan’s fake news when reports of an IAF jet being shot down by Pakistan started doing the rounds. One popular TV anchor even went to the extent of calling Pakistan ‘Fakistan’.

Some channels even had reporters dressed in war fatigues while doing their reports. And the ex-army officers lined up for panel discussions on TV were there for the sole purpose of ramping up the jingoism meter. With the programme anchors literally exhorting our government to go to war, Indian TV journalism seems to have hit a new low after the Pulwama attack.

Thankfully the print media took a more sober approach to reporting the events.

Different from Uri

Tuesday’s air strike was in many ways different in both style and intensity from the 2016 Uri ‘surgical strikes’. For one, this was the first time IAF jets had entered Pakistan territory since the 1971 war. Even during the Kargil conflict of 1999 the then Prime Minister, AB Vajpayee, was careful in not allowing the IAF to cross the Line of Control.

After the horrific Pulwama attack, where more than 40 CRPF jawans were killed in a suicide bombing, there has been mounting anger in the country. The government was under pressure to retaliate in some manner or the other, especially after showcasing the success of the Uri ‘surgical strikes’.

But by entering Pakistan territory this time around, there was a definite escalation in the situation. Unlike the Uri surgical strikes, where Pakistan could maintain plausible deniability, this time there was no hiding the fact that Indian jets entered Pakistan territory and returned unscathed. Some retaliation from Pakistan was only to be expected, which promptly came on Wednesday when a dogfight took place with Pakistani jets crossing the LoC. India said it had successfully beaten back a Pakistan air attack though one IAF pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured by Pakistan after he bailed out when his jet was shot down.

In an attempt to de-escalate tensions, Pakistan later agreed to release the Indian Wing Commander, which it did on Friday.

Moral high ground

On Tuesday by emphasising that it had targeted only terror camps and not Pakistani military installation or civilian targets, India attempted to gain the moral high ground, especially among the diplomatic circles.

Ever since the 2008 Mumbai attacks there has been a hardening of positions in India, with a growing clamour for military action against Pakistan for its continued support for terrorism. But a full-scale war or even a limited ‘military action’ without the dreaded ‘N-option’ would be disastrous for both countries given the human, social and economic costs involved. The fact that a war would hurt Pakistan more, as some hot heads on TV have been suggesting, is of little comfort to Indians.

There is no doubt that Pakistan’s economy is in crisis. Prime Minister Imran Khan inherited an economy that was already bankrupt, and with dwindling foreign exchange reserves. Soon after Khan assumed office, his Finance Minister, Asad Umar, started negotiations with the IMF for another financial package. In 2013, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had agreed on a $6.6-billion loan over 36 months with the IMF. This time, Pakistan asked for a package upwards of $12 billion from the IMF, its largest ever.

According to Bloomberg Quint, “Pakistan’s external balances have weakened considerably. Foreign exchange reserves have dropped to the lowest level in almost four years; the government is running twin current account deficits and budget deficits of more than 5 per cent of GDP. That means it has less foreign funding to repay debt and to pay for much-needed imports to keep the economy going.”

As talks with IMF are stuck, Umar Asad last month said that Pakistan will not be approaching IMF for a bailout package but is exploring other options. These options are, of course, approaching friends such as China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for financial assistance. That the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman chose to visit Pakistan even after the Pulwama attack has to be seen in this context.

A solution for Kashmir

The truth is that, however precarious Pakistan’s economic situation is, war in any form will hurt India too and must be avoided. So, one hopes cooler heads will prevail in the coming days and there will be a de-escalation of tensions.

Amid the terror attacks and worsening situation on the border, the core Kashmir issue remains sidelined and ignored. The situation on the ground and the disaffection in the Kashmir Valley have only worsened over the years with no initiative made by the government towards peace. With elections around the corner, it is unrealistic to expect the government to set in motion any peace initiative in Kashmir. But one hopes that at least after the elections, whichever party or coalition comes to power will make a sincere effort in finding a political solution to the impasse in Kashmir.