Like two male frilled lizards, India and Pakistan are at their posturing best again. So if India’s External Affairs Minister reiterates that India has kept all its options open, Pakistan’s Army Chief says they are capable of retaliating within minutes and scrambles some aircraft to fly sorties as if to say “So there!” India seems to be sounding more and more petulant, and Pakistan, like a recalcitrant child, seems intent on digging in its heels and staying defiant. So where is this heading?

There are enough people within India who are pushing for some kind of action against Pakistan. The trouble is, after 25 years or so of blaming Pakistan for everything, there is a kind of weariness now in the international community. I mean, there can only be two options – either we are right, or we got it all wrong. Now, if we have been right for a quarter of a century, what have we done about it except whine, whine and then whine some more? And as any schoolchild will tell you, constant whining and running to the teacher every time you are pushed around will not only get you bullied some more, it will also make the teacher take you less seriously.

And that’s exactly where we find ourselves. Yet again.

So what do we do? Unfortunately, the options before us are very limited. We can continue to try and bring more international pressure on Pakistan, but given Obama’s views on, and the US agenda in, Afghanistan, as well as his limited understanding of the sub-continent, that’s not going to work for too long. Ditto for any economic sanctions. It doesn’t suit US interests in the region. The US is, as any nation should be, guided by its self-interest. (China is the best example of this, in their single-minded quest for world domination. If we had even a tiny fraction of the clear-mindedness and determination of the Chinese, we would have been on a completely different plane today.)

Today, we are, not to put too fine a point on it, between a rock and a hard place.

Given that we actually have no options – Pranab Mukherjee notwithstanding – how might the scenario unfold? In an election year, the UPA government might be constrained to escalate matters beyond mere sabre-rattling. A surgical strike, or anything like that, to my mind, will precipitate war simply because the civilian government (or what passes for it in Pakistan) will, similarly, have no choice but to retaliate to survive. The Pakistan military – even if it doesn’t decide to stage a coup – will welcome a chance to go to war against India, for three reasons: one, it gives them a chance to take centre-stage in the country again. Two, it takes the pressure off them in terms of attacking and disabling ideologically similar institutions – like the Taliban – that they have created, equipped and supported. Three, they know that while a war with India is not a war they can win, they also know it’s not a war they can lose.

I know the last point will shock a good many Indians. But that’s the truth. Our conventional military edge is not what it used to be. While we have clear numerical superiority – in personnel and equipment – the difference is not enough to give us victory. A conventional war will likely be a protracted, grinding affair with no clear winner, a military stalemate. It will, however, be disastrous for our economy and set us back 20 years. Even if we assume that India’s conventional superiority brings us close to victory, here’s a likely – but entirely fictional – account of what will happen next. (This also assumes that the nuclear option will not be exercised by either party.)

The moment India secures a military advantage, Washington will be told by Islamabad that there is huge internal pressure from within Pakistan’s establishment to go in for a nuclear strike. That ensures that there is suddenly tremendous pressure on India – from all quarters – to exercise restraint, and pull back with some face-saving measures. Simultaneously with India’s upper-hand in the conflict becoming evident, China will suddenly decide to hold some exercises on their side of the border with India, and make a show of moving some troops there. Perhaps even fly some sorties of their own. They will, of course, ratchet up the rhetoric on Arunachal and Sikkim as well, forcing India to divert attention, personnel and equipment to the east. And voilà, we are right where Pakistan – and China – want us. Militarily debilitated and demoralised, politically fragile and economically devastated. And that’s the end of our dream.

Regrettably, years of crying wolf, and a reputation of timidity, have left us with only one option – that of being defensive. And that necessitates setting our own house in order.

War is not an option.

UPDATE: A well-written article on how far our excellent diplomatic skills and clear-minded foreign policy have taken us….

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