How India Became Pakistan’s Unlikely Saviour

Narendra Modi’s diplomatic intransigence and strategic miscalculations seem to have dramatically reversed the PR fortunes of the two hostile neighbours.

On 14 February, a suicide bomber hit a convoy of paramilitary forces in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), a militant group based in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack. Indian authorities immediately accused Pakistan of orchestrating the bombing – an allegation Pakistan vehemently denied. Pakistan went a step further to issue a public request for ‘actionable evidence’ from the Indian government and maintained that it would act on intelligence shared but that none had been given.

On 27 February, Indian Airforce planes flew across the international border and into Pakistani territory, engaging the Indian and Pakistani Air Forces in dogfights for the first time since the war of 1971. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, up for re-election in two month’s time, claimed to have hit JeM’s training camp, killing 300 militants, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, northwestern Pakistan. Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, denied the claims, however not before Pakistan successfully downed an Indian MiG 21 fighter jet and captured its Indian pilot. What followed thereafter serves fascinating insights into modern day PR and diplomacy amongst other things. For the first time in decades, it seems Pakistan is being lauded for playing a positive and conciliatory role in its otherwise chequered history. In fact, India may well be given the credit for unwittingly saving the Pakistanis from themselves.

The parallel media campaign run by the Pakistani military’s PR wing (ISPR) complimented and amplified the perception of a moral victory won by Pakistan in this bout. Initial images of Pakistani soldiers protecting the captured Indian soldier from enraged mobs were followed by video clips of him being treated with respect and courtesy, sipping a cup of tea and having a relaxed chat with his captors. The final nail in the proverbial coffin was the Pakistani Premier announcing the safe repatriation of the captured Indian pilot as a “gesture for peace”, along with calls for calm and invitations for his Indian counterpart to come to the negotiating table.

Modi’s diplomatic intransigence and strategic miscalculations seem to have dramatically reversed the PR fortunes of the two hostile neighbours. In less than a week, India managed to pull Pakistan out of the diplomatic siege it had spent years diligently cultivating. Where previously Pakistan stood vilified as a revisionist aggressor with a history of consorting with violent extremists – not without cause – with one broad sweep Prime Minister Imran Khan scored significant gains diplomatically, politically, and optically. His pragmatic and measured response to the Indian attack on Pakistani soil struck a remarkably, albeit uncharacteristically, conciliatory chord with the wider public online as well as offline.

Meanwhile, across the border, the Indian media and political leadership were in tandem beating war drums and baying for Pakistani blood. The accompanying cacophony of war-mongering in Indian media managed to drown out any voices advocating a calmer, more measured approach towards the confrontation. Notable Bollywood actors disappointed scores of Pakistani fans by exulting the prospect of military engagement, led by Kangana Renaut announcement that the ultimate goal for India should be the ‘destruction of Pakistan’. At the same time several popular television channels within Indian media also blundered spectacularly in the PR game. Alongside cringe-worthy images of television anchors presenting shows in military uniforms on air, there were more insidious displays of misinformation, with unsubstantiated reporting and incorrect information e.g. number and nature of casualties, identification of military equipment etc.

The contradictions in terms emerging from the Indian establishment were also striking. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale intriguingly called the airstrike by the Indian Air Force, the first on Pakistani soil since 1971, a ‘non-military pre-emptive action’. Non-partisan political and social media commentators quickly picked up on the inconsistencies in this statement, questioning how an IAF air strike could be deemed ‘non-military’. The ‘pre-emptive’ premise of this violation of an internationally recognised boundary was also of dubious validity. Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allows for the right to ‘individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member state’ is problematic in justifying the Indian strike. According to the doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence, a nation can act in self-defence before an armed attack takes place against them, provided they can show there was a necessity to act which was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”, which in this case does not ring entirely true.

Arguably the most surprising development from this crisis was the discernible contrast across the border with the emergence of an unusually harmonious anti-war sentiment in Pakistan. Trending hashtags in Pakistan included #saynotowar, #maketeanotwar, #indiansandpakistanisfriendsforever and #indiapakistanpeace. Popular celebrities including Mahira Khan and Humaiyun Saeed took to Twitter to urge restraint, friendship and peace. Even Pakistan’s chronically disunited political community came together, with opposition parties declaring their unanimous support for Prime Minister Khan’s diplomatic approach towards rising tensions.

Domestic conditions in the run up to this latest crisis have played a significant role in channelling domestic and international perceptions of the two states into this role reversal. In recent decades no one has suffered more violence at the hands of social and political polarization, as well as religious extremism, than Pakistani citizens themselves. The country’s long-suffering populace has seen little respite from the ravages of authoritarian dictatorships, economic deprivation and terrorism. This may explain the clear aversion to jingoism and war that Pakistanis have demonstrated so vocally in this crisis.

Conversely, the disproportionate level of military posturing by India seems to be driven by the ruling BJP’s political imperatives. A wide-ranging clamp-down on civil liberties has underscored Prime Minister Modi’s wave of populist support and come under increasing domestic criticism. BJP’s Karnataka Chief Yeddyurappa may have unintentionally articulated the premise behind India’s uncharacteristic strategic blunder when he remarked that the IAF strike would help the BJP get more than 22 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the state in the upcoming general election.

Notwithstanding long-term damage inflicted on the historically secular Indian body politic, right-wing populism in the country should now be seen as presenting credible challenges for regional stability. Perhaps the most astonishing feature of the series of diplomatic and political faux pas exemplified by the Modi government in this crisis is the way they have undermined their own policy towards Kashmir. By assuming the questionable mantle of being the only nuclear-armed country in the world to bomb its nuclear-armed neighbour, India has inadvertently internationalised the crisis. In doing so, it has undermined decades of effort it expended in keeping international arbitration away from the Kashmir dispute. At the same time, Modi has done the PTI government in Pakistan a huge favour by allowing Imran Khan, to present himself as the statesman of the hour with dignity, maturity and an undeniable PR victory. By exacerbating a vulnerability – the fear of Indian aggression – that invariably brings together all sections of the normally disjointed Pakistani society the Indian Prime Minister has done Pakistan a great service and his own country a grave disservice. Given the diplomatic and economic isolation Pakistan has suffered internationally in recent years, and the destructive ethnic and socio-political forces it is battling domestically, this victory of optics may well serve as a turning point for its strategic fortunes in the region.

Dr Sarah Ashraf is a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counter violent extremism and polarisation think tank.


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