Above all, the Indian side emphasized the status of Jaish-e-Mohammed as a repeat offender. India had endured a 2001 attack on its parliament planned by the group and a January 2016 assault on an airbase—both without retaliating, even as the 2001 incident brought both sides to the brink of war. Other attacks, in July 2015 and September 2016, had been carried out by Pakistan-based militants, with the latter prompting India to take limited military action in the form of what it called “surgical strikes.” In November 2008, most infamously, terrorists belonging to Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba staged an attack on civilians in Mumbai.
Given this history, India’s latest strike was not, in the country’s view, an act of war, but one of self-defense. India’s broad practice of strategic restraint since the 2002 crisis had, in a way, allowed it to accumulate years of credibility on the international stage that was, in effect, “spent” this week with its strike at Balakot.
Nevertheless, the ingress into Pakistani territory for the first time since the 1971 war between the two countries left the Pakistani military embarrassed. Swift retaliation was promised—and Pakistan delivered with strikes of its own across the Line of Control, the de facto border. Indian jets pursued the Pakistani fighters that had conducted the strikes, suffering losses in the process. One Indian pilot was captured alive and remains in Pakistani custody.
The ingredients are now present for an all-out conflagration. Headlines the world over have emphasized the countries’ status as nuclear powers, underscoring the stakes. But there’s a choice now over how this might end—and it is largely India’s to make. Pakistan’s response has reset the onus for retaliation on New Delhi, and finding a way out that’s acceptable to both countries will not be easy.
India’s action is without precedent since the nuclear age began in South Asia. True, the two countries fought a war in 1999 under the nuclear overhang, but that conflict took place within politically proscribed limits, with then–Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee having specifically instructed the military to not cross the Line of Control at any cost.
While New Delhi’s latest decision to retaliate was based on national security, its leadership had to concern itself with more mundane questions of political expediency too. India is just weeks away from a general election that will once again see the world’s largest exercise in democracy take place. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his nationally dominant Bharatiya Janata Party could have faced electoral trouble if they mismanaged the response.
And though much about the current crisis has its roots in familiar issues, what is different this time for the two countries rattling sabers, after their respective nuclear breakouts, is the proliferation of social media and the growth of nationalistic television-news networks—primarily in India. The Indian government is culpable too for egging on the sort of public opinion that now corners it ahead of the election; the 2016 “surgical strikes” were immortalized in a Bollywood film recently.