The Indian air strike in Balakot, Pakistan in the early hours of February 26 was significant on multiple levels. It signalled the end of an era when India would be deterred from striking Pakistan in retaliation for incessant terrorist outrages. A major escalation, to be sure, but one that underlines the rise of a confident and assertive India. The use of terrorism as an asymmetric weapon of war against the Indian people will no longer be tolerated by New Delhi.
The operational success of the mission was indicative of the disparity between the two countries in overall airpower. Even though the Indians have issues with falling squadron numbers, they successfully penetrated into Pakistani airspace without being shot down, in spite of Pakistan having a modern air defence system. Furthermore Balakot is in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which is Pakistan proper. It also has implications for China, which shares a long border with India in Tibet. The Indian Air Force could yet prove a serious threat to China in the event of a Tibetan insurrection.
Politically the strike is a triumph for Indian PM Modi. It will give him a poll boost, even as his BJP leads almost all pre-election polls by a substantial margin. It is not beyond the realm of imagination that he could win a landslide following this escalation process. Make no mistake, there is no doubt that India is escalating simply with this air strike.
As of writing, the situation in the Indian subcontinent is still escalating. Today an Indian MiG-21 was shot down, with a pilot captured by the Pakistanis. A Pakistani F-16 was also shot down by India. The decision by Pakistan to escalate underlines two things: Pakistan’s need to salvage lost pride after Balakot and the possibly bizzare decision to strike back in defence of terrorists. India had termed the Balakot strike a ‘non-military strike’, diplomatic parlance to underline the fact that the IAF struck a terrorist camp, and not the Pak military itself. By retaliating to India as it has Pakistan risks taking full diplomatic ownership of terrorist and militant outfits, which would shred its international reputation further.
The diplomatic angle is also interesting. Not a single major world power, not even China is supporting Pakistan this time. Calls for restraint are common, but what really stands out is how France, Australia, Germany and the US all called for Pakistan to eliminate terrorism from its’ soil. This is significant as it suggests that international opinion is now strongly on India’s side. Delhi has the headwinds and the consensus behind it. There may be an international perception that India is doing the world a favour by continuing counterterrorism strikes.
Whatever happens from here on in, there has been a tectonic change in how India responds to terrorism. Future attacks will meet a deadly Indian response: the days of Gandhian pacificism are over.