Did the Indian Air Force (IAF) really take out 300 militants of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), or did the bombs fall on barren ground? After the Balakot strikes, the narrative that emerged from various elements of the Indian state was that Indian fighter jets had flown deep inside Pakistani territory and destroyed a key JeM training camp that contained ‘250-300 terrorists". The Indian side was wise in projecting the exercise as a pre-emptive, non-military strike that was not in response to Pulwama. Pakistan contested the Indian claims and professed that it too had breached Indian airspace, downed two Indian jets and captured Indian “pilots".

The answers to the claims and counter-claims require an exercise of factual verification. The game theorist in me was intrigued by the role that exaggeration could play in an episode of brinkmanship.

India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. Any military engagement involving the two runs the risk of a dangerous escalation. An airborne attack is a risky choice because of the speed at which matters unfold and the possibility of massive casualties. Yet, if the provocation is extreme, as was the case in Pulwama, what are the options? How does one convey a sense of just retribution to Pakistan, the Indian public and to the world at large, while keeping the risks of escalation within manageable limits?

Let us say the Indian side could adopt three courses of action. The first is a symbolic response, which would keep the risk of escalation low. The second is a strong response, which would raise the risk of escalation to unacceptable levels. And the third is a moderate response accompanied by exaggerated claims. The third response would satisfy the public’s need for retribution, to the extent of its credulousness, and put the Pakistani government on notice that India’s patience is wearing out. However, as both the Indian and Pakistani governments would know that the level of moderation had not actually been breached, matters might stay within acceptable limits. For the same reason, Pakistan’s response could also come in two parts—an actual response, and a bit of spice added on top.

Thus, exaggeration provided a window of opportunity to create a middle path between insufficient response and unacceptable escalation. Further, it also had a role in providing a face-saving escape route for the party at the receiving end of a provocation. Let us take the Indian claims of actually destroying the Balakot camp with its resident militants at face value and ask why the Indian side did not promptly release evidence. Perhaps it was to allow the Pakistani side to claim that India’s claims were exaggerated and thus respond at a level corresponding to a lower level of provocation rather than the actual level.

In the midst of claims and counter-claims about Balakot, one must ask why Pakistan is not releasing its own evidence about the magnitude of the destruction, but is still dismissing Indian claims about the extent of damage. It is possible that their leaders want to play a double game. On the one hand, they want to create doubt about the actual achievement of the Indian strike. On the other, they want to convey to the international community that India has acted irresponsibly. Meanwhile, at a press conference, Air Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa asserted that India’s air strike had hit the targets, but the IAF does not count the number of dead.

This play of shadows is not without its merits, as this column has tried to show. But the excessive hyperbole also serves to cast doubt on the actual achievements of the strike that dared to go deep into Pakistani territory. The rampant politicization that followed works against our claim of occupying the high ground and makes it highly likely that for the next couple of months, our strategy will be driven by short-term political considerations. This is simply reckless, as it adds a dangerous twist to an already fraught situation between two nuclear powers. Under the circumstances, the de-politicization of the situation is imperative. The Prime Minister must reach out to the opposition, not score points.

Finally, what do these developments portend for the future of Kashmir? If we believe our own exaggerated claims that Pakistan has somehow been taught a decisive lesson, and that we are closer to a solution for Kashmir, we will only trip ourselves in a self-created world of make-believe. At this stage, a clear recognition that the Kashmir problem is a political problem is critical. If it were not a political problem, why are the issues of Articles 370 and 35A so important? Treating it merely as a problem of terrorism will be counter-productive. A member of the Indian armed forces said about Operation Balakot, “The tough stand of the government is a positive development. There should be no talks with Pakistan till the time terrorism ends. Pakistan should understand that terrorism will create problems for India, but also destroy Pakistan."

To this I would like to add: “The steadily growing disenchantment of Kashmiri youth is a negative development. They must be engaged in dialogue till the time their alienation ends. India should understand that a single-pronged muscular approach will create problems for Pakistan, but also destroy India."

And that...is not an exaggeration.

Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.

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