Is the Indian strike inside Pakistan an escalation towards war or is it a move that seeks to satisfy the Indian public's demand for revenge?

Just a day after US President Donald Trump described the situation between India and Pakistan as “very dangerous”, India validated that description by sending a few top-end Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft into Pakistan on Tuesday, in what it said was a “pre-emptive non-military” strike.

While Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale asserted that the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) group’s camps were destroyed in Balakot inside Pakistan killing “a very large number of JeM terrorists." Pakistan refuted that saying the foraying Indian aircraft dropped its load on a vacant area before scrambling back home. India said that the Balakot facility was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar, the brother in law of Masood Azhar, the JeM chief.

With this strike, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have taken forward his threat of avenging the killing of at least 40 personnel of India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in a suicide attack at Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir last week, responsibility for which was claimed by the JeM.

Ever since the attack on Valentine’s Day, February 14,  India has witnessed outrage with a range of responses from various sections  – some calling for war on Pakistan, others demanding a surgical strike on the JeM and some people asking that all ties with Islamabad be severed. 

A minuscule number like the Punjab state minister and former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu attempted to moderate the mood by suggesting while JeM should be targeted the anger should not extend to the whole of Pakistan as not all would have wanted such an attack on the Indian forces. But that sentiment was drowned out by an overwhelming call for revenge of some sort.

Reacting to the outrage, the Indian government announced it was withdrawing the most favoured nation (MFN) trade status for Pakistan and hiked tariffs to the extent of 200 percent on imports from that country. Still, it seemed that these moves were not enough to satisfy those baying for blood.

That the Pulwama attack took place just a couple of months before the all-important general elections to India’s Parliament caused the pitch to rise hysterically even more than at most other times. The elections, expected in May, will determine the fate of Mr Modi and the federal coalition led by the ruling nationalist pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.

Even if the prime minister had wanted an alternative response, his right-wing supporters were mainly looking to him to do something dramatic, and that may have played a role in his decision to go in for an attack. That the Indian government described it as a “non-military pre-emptive” attack was an indication that it doesn't want to do anything to escalate the situation into a full-scale war. 

Both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed countries and consequently wary of challenging each other in a conventional war.

In 2016, in response to a terror attack on an army camp at Uri in Indian administered Kashmir which killed 18 soldiers,  India mounted a 'surgical strike' across the line of control (LoC)  in Pakistan which New Delhi said took the life of “38 terrorists and two Pakistani soldiers.”

In both cases, Pakistan’s response has been confounding. In 2016, Pakistan denied there had been any surgical strike by India. And, on Tuesday,  Pakistan attempted to water down the air strike by saying the bombs had been offloaded onto vacant land. In thid latest instance, however, Pakistan has threatened retaliation though it is not clear what shape it will take, if it does at all.

The United States, which is friends with both India and Pakistan has consistently played peacemaker between the two as it is not in the interests of Washington to see its allies warring with each other. Trump’s description of the situation being "very dangerous" is an indication that US officials are probably engaged in track two talks to douse tempers.

In December 2001, when India’s Parliament building was attacked, while it was in session, by suspected Kashmiri separatists including JeM, the then coalition government led by the BJP under prime minister A B Vajpayee amassed troops on India’s border with Pakistan threatening to go to war. The then US president George W Bush reportedly intervened, averting a conflict.

Another potential flare-up was in the aftermath of the 26 November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, blamed on Pakistan-based militants. India’s Congress government of the day instead chose to pressurise Islamabad with the help of Washington to sequester and prosecute  the JeM. Pakistan, under then-President Pervez Musharraf, had half-heartedly attempted to placate India at the instance of the United States. 

In fact, since India’s 1971 war with Pakistan which saw the break up of Pakistan into two and the reinvention of its eastern territory as Bangladesh, there has been no full-scale armed engagement between the two. The closest was in 1999 when the Pakistan Army launched the Kargil operation. India beat back the attempt in a limited armed encounter.

These instances make it clear that both India and Pakistan have arrived at an informal consensus against a conventional war with each other. This is particularly true after India went nuclear in 1974 followed by Pakistan in 1998.  But the dispute over the picturesque Kashmir valley continues and the situation is almost always on the boil resulting in constant tension.  

For both countries, the public perception of their governments in the way they handle Kashmir is crucial for political parties to come to power.  Consequently, the air strike on Tuesday is a reflection of genuine anger combined with a show of bravado that the Modi government hopes will work in its favour as elections approach.