DE-ESCALATE. If that word appears in capitals, it’s deliberate and prudent. We believe it defines what India and Pakistan should do at this point in time.

India has made its point loud and clear, locally and globally, by striking against terror and then rebuffing an adventurous attack.

Look at how events have unfolded in the last two days. After the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) precision strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp at Balakot on Tuesday, an impetuous Pakistan retaliated the following day and was quickly thwarted. Pakistan claimed an Indian MiG fighter was shot down and its pilot captured; India said a Pakistani F-16 aircraft was destroyed.

Undoubtedly, it’s a war-type situation, with nobody likely to fathom what’s next.

As Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said: Battles are won before they are fought. For, they are fought in the meadows of the mind or at the desks of diplomacy. And talking wins the day. Predictably, with tensions at their Himalayan peak, the heady mixture of rhetoric, propaganda and nationalism will find its way into discourse and action.

Both countries should avoid such deterioration in the already-edgy environment. India has wisely marshaled its diplomatic resources so far. The first phase of perception warfare has gone in its favour. The US, which can still pull more than a lever in Pakistan, has asked it to act against terrorists on its soil. Reaction from most countries has centred around the customary call to the parties concerned to engage in talks and sort out matters peacefully. China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend, too has been reserved in its reaction, counselling restraint. So have been the Saudis. As Mint will always argue, de-escalation is the simplest form of detente.

These are tough times for both countries, more so for Pakistan. Our western neighbour is currently seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—its second in the last five years. According to a UN report, Pakistan’s economy is projected to slow down markedly in 2019 and 2020 to below 4%, after an estimated expansion of 5.4% in 2018. With its economy in distress, Pakistan should realize its days of conducting low-intensity terror campaigns are over. If it still chooses to continue on the self-destructive path, the attack and counter-attack by the IAF have only multiplied the costs for running this proxy war, a scenario Pakistan and its people can ill afford.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, keen to champion his “Naya Pakistan" cause, has swung between machismo and smoking the peace pipe. The army reigns supreme in Pakistan and Khan may have little to choose here even as his intentions may be honest.

But this could be the former cricket captain’s moment. He has already offered to engage in talks more than once. A quick release of the Indian pilot captured by Pakistan may just be the perfect way for him to de-escalate matters. He could ace his life’s cricket records by resetting India-Pakistan relations: Pakistan could hand over to India JeM’s mastermind Masood Azhar, who has taken responsibility for the Pulwama attack.

Clearly, the battle needs to shift to the theatre of negotiation. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi should set the agenda by fetching Pakistan to the table, influencing Pakistan’s allies, and playing the role of a regional power that seeks mutually beneficial solutions.

Indeed, India should focus on a different type of a surgical strike; it’s a strike that could push Pakistan out of its terror past and military dependency. It won’t come soon, but it’s worth a start.

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