Anyone who has a child knows the importance of not over-playing your hand. He was up all night playing some game on his smartphone and you feel like saying that if it happens again the phone is gone. Forever. Till he is old enough to buy his own. Till then he can have your old Nokia.
The question is always whether, when it comes to it, you will feel up to carrying out the threat — knowing what his friends will say, realising how delighted the neighbourhood bully will be to get such an opportunity to get to him, worrying about all the other bad things he could get up to. The rational economist in me says why would he, knowing the consequences, ever get to the point where you have to act, but then a rational economist is not a 15-year-old with a fragile sense of himself and a strong desire to be proved that he is a man.
At the risk of sounding patronising, Pakistan is that troubled adolescent, unsure about the kind of country it wants to be, caught between the mad dreams of power-hungry theocrats and the more middle class aspirations of much of its population, a country born in the rejection of its conjoint twin and committed, above all, to step out of its long and looming shadow. China is that neighbourhood bully, secure in its immense power and recently earned economic credentials, happy to play its neighbours off against each other with gentle needling and occasional encouragement. And, we, alas, are the hapless parent, trapped between uncertainties about how to deal with the troubled teenager and our own, not infrequent, childish impulses.
Let me be clear about one thing: I don’t have an opinion, or at least a considered opinion, about whether the “surgical strikes” were a good idea or a bad one. If the strikes were successful in taking out the next group of attackers on one of our army camps or civilian destinations, they would indeed have served an important purpose. What is indefensible is what we have done since — the tom-tomming of our great success — the chest thumping that Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned us against but continues, seemingly unabated, in the media.
If you were the Pakistani government how are you supposed to react to that? Pretend that it never happened? They tried that but it did not stick. Admit that our security forces succeeded in pulling off a fast one over their Pakistani rivals? What Pakistani government could even think of that without risking a coup? The Pakistani army has not only pride riding on the image of their being the one institution that works in dysfunctional Pakistan, but also real money. It is well known that the army in Pakistan controls a substantial part of the country’s GDP (I have heard the number 15%) through its various trusts. According to Dawn, the Fauji Foundation has oil refineries, natural gas companies, power, fertiliser and cement plants as well as a bank. The armed forces are also a leading real estate developer in Pakistan. That gravy train would be upset if people started to question the army’s competence and relevance. Isn’t that why no peace attempt is allowed to go very far?
With the local media not convinced by the State propaganda so far, the Pakistani State is probably under pressure to do something to salvage the army’s honour — not revenge — one cannot take revenge for something that one is claiming never happened — but something definitive and surely violent. The question for us is what if that does happen. More strikes? This time they will be ready for it, happy to have our soldiers walk into a trap and the opportunity to humiliate us. Abrogate the Indus waters treaty? Good heavens no. We forget that we are downstream from China, which is always happy for an excuse to capture more water in dry Tibet, especially if it also helps a friend in need. It may not be a coincidence that just when we were talking about doing something with the Indus waters to punish Pakistan, China announced the building of a dam on the Brahmaputra. So what’s left? All-out war? Nuclear weapons?
Let us face it. We overplayed our hand. The strikes themselves Pakistan might have swallowed as a move in our age-old game of tit for tat. The propaganda, the public display of our delight at their expense, force their hand — it’s the smartphone moment. And we may very well come to regret it.
The question is how to climb down from here. It has to come from us. They cannot afford to look any weaker. The problem is that our present government has often shied away from disappointing its most rabid supporters, which might seem strange, since those supporters have nowhere else to go.
But it is also time to think hard about Kashmir. The best way to secure the border is to get local people to start looking out for terrorists — which is what ultimately helped us in Punjab. For that we need the local people on our side. The most compelling case we can make to the Kashmiri people is that the real alternative for them is to be swallowed up by the mess called Pakistan, and we can surely offer them better than that. But we severely undermine that case every time we tolerate anti-Muslim hysteria, or some arm of the India State shoots an unarmed student in the Valley.
Abhijit Banerjee is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, and director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT.
The views expressed are personal.