Tensions between India and Pakistan, already on the rise since mid-February, spiked in the most dramatic of ways on Tuesday, with Delhi saying it had launched airstrikes on what it alleged was a terrorist training camp across its de facto border with Islamabad.
The announcement – disputed by Pakistan, which says Indian jets did fly across the de facto border, but were pushed back by its forces – comes less than two weeks after 40 Indian paramilitaries were killed in a devastating car bomb attack in the Kashmir region that has been a source of discord between the two nuclear armed neighbors for decades.
India said the attack was the handiwork of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a Pakistan based terror group, and accused Pakistan of having a “direct hand” in the atrocity, a claim denied by Islamabad.
Tuesday’s airstrikes were Delhi’s response: India says the camp it targeted was run by JeM.
“Credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country… In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary,” India’s foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, told reporters in Delhi.
The discrepancy between Delhi’s account and what Pakistan is saying isn’t novel.
Back in 2016, following an attack on an Indian military installation in Kashmir that India blamed on Pakistan-based gunmen, Delhi carried out what it called “surgical strikes” – sending troops across the de facto border to hit terrorist targets.
Pakistan, however, denied that any such incursion had taken place, saying instead that there had only been an exchange of fire between the two sides.
The upshot: Tensions were eventually contained. Pakistan’s leadership denied India’s story. India’s leadership, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pressed on with their account to fire up its nationalist domestic base.
This time round, while it remains unclear whether hostilities will escalate in the coming days, the two different accounts from the two countries mean that there could be room, in theory, for tensions to ease.
Domestically, being seen as tough on Pakistan helps Modi politically at a crucial time.
India’s election authorities are due within weeks to announce the dates of the next general election.
In 2014, when Modi first became prime minister, he promised to, among other things, revive a flagging economy and be stronger than his predecessors on defense. On the economic front, things have been looking shaky of late.
Even as India’s growth remains strong, worries have been mounting for months about a worsening jobs crisis and falling farmer incomes – both among the factors cited by analysts to explain why Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered heavy losses in a series of important state level polls in December.
But Tuesday’s news boosts Modi’s image as being strong on defense. And his backers are already seizing on the developments, with Amit Shah, the BJP president, tweeting that Tuesday’s “action further demonstrates that India is safe and secure under the strong & decisive leadership” of Modi.
Politically, then, this could strengthen Modi as India heads to the polls. Geopolitically, the risk of escalation remains real.