Twelve days after a suicide attack by a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist killed 40 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Narendra Modi administration gave a resolute reply.

Indian Air Force’s Mirage 2000 fighter jets pounded Balakot in Pakistan, home to the banned terror outfit’s largest training base. Media reports pegged the casualties, including JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders, anywhere between 200 and 350.

The IAF air strike assumes significance in many ways. It was the first time since 1971 that the IAF had entered Pakistani airspace for a pre-emptive strike. That the planes could enter Pakistani territory and return without any casualties of their own, and without harming civilians, speaks volumes about the planning. It also shows that the Pakistani side was caught unawares by the timing of the Indian operation.

Killing of JeM’s top mercenaries—including JeM chief Masood Azhar’s brother-in-law Maulana Yousuf Azhar—also makes it a highly defensible exercise.

The stakes for either side haven’t been this high for long. The Pulwama attack pushed Prime Minister Narendra Modi into a corner. That it came in the heat of a pre-election campaign was only incidental. Yes, he was facing a tired voter base disappointed over the lack of jobs and a distressed farmer community. But this time, the damage to the Indian psyche was more than palpable.

A terror attack of Pulwama’s magnitude could only be ignored at Modi’s own peril and, knowing his instincts, he wasn’t going to—notwithstanding that an escalation in hostilities would hurt the economy.

The Indian response has clearly drawn the battle lines. Arguably, Pakistan has two choices now: to shut its terror factories and stop its low-intensity warfare or make the bigger mistake of escalation. It should realize that funding terror has done it no good and only betrays Prime Minister Imran Khan’s own “Naya Pakistan" tune. After all, our western neighbour, too, is beset with the same set of problems that we have—lack of education, corruption, poverty, infanticide and crimes against women, to name a few.

The international response to the IAF air strike has been on expected lines so far. China, an ally of Pakistan, has asked the two countries to de-escalate the tensions while Australia has supported India. In the era of Donald Trump and a Europe caught up with Brexit and its own economic and social problems, international reaction will be muted and varied, if not unresponsive or indifferent.

That the IAF air strike reportedly killed no civilian should go to India’s credit. The government’s terminology, calling it a “non-military, pre-emptive action", is a smart one and should assuage any international misgivings. It has pointedly mentioned JeM as being its target and calls upon Pakistan to honour its 2004 commitment to not allow home-grown terrorism to target India.

Khan, the former cricket captain, surely wants to sweep out terror. Searching for economic tailwinds to grow his country could be the only step towards achieving that. That would demilitarize Pakistan’s politics and cut its supply chains to terror.

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