Balakot, Narendra Modi And The Ricky Ponting Dilemma

Balakot, Narendra Modi And The Ricky Ponting Dilemma
Just like a typical Melbourne day, 12 March 2006 had a number of different shades for the Australian cricket team. It began as a bright day for the Aussies, as they started to bat in the fifth and final one-day cricket match between South Africa and Australia at Johannesburg’s New Wanderers cricket stadium. After winning the toss, Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting decided to bat first. Adam Gilchrist and Simon Katich gave an excellent start to Australia, followed by one of the best batting performances by Ponting himself: he scored his fastest century off 73 balls, ending up making 164 from 105 balls. All in all, Australia made 434 runs in 50 overs. Ponting’s men gave an excellent, almost flawless performance. Australia became the first side to score more than 400 runs in a one-day cricket match. Many spectators left the stadium and viewers around the world watching the match on their TV screens – including this scribe – considered that the Aussies have established a ‘new normal’ (i.e., crossing the 400 threshold) and the South Africans cannot do anything about it. Defeat was written on the wall for them. Even the game experts believed that this record would be difficult to beat. All except Jacques Kallis in the South African dressing room felt this. Kallis famously told his teammates: “Come on, guys: it's a 450-wicket. They're 15 short!”

If the ballers’ failure was not bad enough, the South African batting hit an early disaster when Boeta Dippenaar was sent packing quite early in the innings. However, things started to change with the arrival of Herschelle Gibbs. He made a ton in 79 balls. By the 25th over, South Africa was past 200 with 8 wickets in hand. According to Hussey: “The scary thing was, the comparisons kept going up on the board, and they [South Africa] were always 15 or 20 runs ahead of us. Batting without any hope of winning was such a dangerous thing. They had complete freedom. I thought, ‘far out, they’re going to win easily.’” Nothing went right for Ponting’s men. Ponting faced a dilemma: despite having formidable 434 on the board, he couldn’t do anything to stop the South Africans from smashing through his men across the stadium. Whatever they did to contain the South Africans failed. In other words, the best of planning and execution were floundering. It was a case of raising the bar so high that one feels that the opponent has no option but to accept this as fait accompli, yet failing to take into account the resolve and response of one’s opponent. Soon it became clear to Ponting that things were going south. And as it happened, South Africa successfully chased the target. At the end of the day, Ponting’s men lost the game, which looked so very much in Team Australia’s grasp before the South Africans started their innings.

Can this “Ponting’s Dilemma” be linked to politics and issues of war and peace? Has this dilemma – that one fails to achieve one’s ultimate objective not because of lack of effort, preparedness or resolve but from overlooking the same for one’s opponent – ever been at play in the real world? Due to space limitations, we mention only two obvious cases where this Ponting’s dilemma was at play.

Persian Emperor Xerxes, confident of his numbers and military might after crossing the Hellespont, was first delayed by Leonidas and his 300, then suffered a storm in the Aegean Sea and once he reached close to the target, found the Athenians leaving the city. Fast forward to 1812, Napoleon and his Russia campaign. Narrowing it down to his target, he found the area abandoned and had to face the Russian weather.

However, nothing could illustrate this dilemma better than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to establish a new normal in South Asia in 2019. Highly critical of “India’s soft policy” towards Pakistan since 1998, he and his national security team strongly believed that India is way out of league for Pakistan and that the smaller country could be made dry by blocking the river waters flowing into it and making it an arid wasteland.

As regards the presence of nuclear weapons and the idea that as a conventionally inferior side, in case of an Indian attack, Pakistan might resort to using its nuclear weapons (a belief held not only by the Indian strategic thinkers but also by the American and the European analysts as well), Modi and his team claimed that it is just a bluff and should be called. According to Modi and his national security team, if Islamabad resorts to nuclear use, it ought to be allowed to go ahead and then be decimated by an Indian response.

It was this mindset that led to the claim of a so-called surgical strike in response to the 2016 Uri attack and the famous rhetoric that “blood and water cannot flow together.” His then defense minister openly argued that only a thorn can remove a thorn. Such claims were signaling that he intended to do things differently.

In this backdrop, when an attack on the Indian paramilitary force in the town of Pulwama took place on 14 February 2019, in which 44 soldiers were killed and more than 70 wounded, Modi had two choices: revert back to “India’s soft policy” or do something that ‘softer’ Indian leaders failed to do. Confident of India’s military might, international and regional standing, global power configuration and trends, Modi was confident that he had the best hand and Islamabad would have no choice but to accept the so-called ‘new normal’ as fait accompli in keeping with the fact that the conventional military balance was tilted in favour of India. In such a situation, Islamabad would be left with only one option i.e., to walk the talk and escalate, which New Delhi assumed would not be possible – hence Pakistan’s nuclear bluff would be called once and for all.
It was a case of raising the bar so high that one feels that the opponent has no option but to accept this as fait accompli, yet failing to take into account the resolve and response of one’s opponent

On 26 February 2019, India claimed that the Indian Air Force had targeted and destroyed an alleged Jaish-e-Muhammad training camp in Balakot in Pakistan, resulting in a huge number of deaths. It was a claim that was immediately contested from within India and was later proved incorrect. IAF’s Western Air Command chief Chandrashekharan Hari Kumar told India Today: “The entire operation was coordinated, planned, executed by the control stations in headquarters, Western Air Command.” India was projecting it as a non-preemptive strike on a terrorist camp and not on the state or its institutions. Indian Armed forces were placed on full alert. By projecting the strike as such, New Delhi wanted to achieve multiple objectives and the initial global response was expressively pro-India. Islamabad was told to put its house in order and not to retaliate, while India’s right of self-defense was acknowledged by Washington. If New Delhi wanted to establish a ‘new normal’ and call Islamabad’s bluff, now they believed it worked. Furthermore, Islamabad’s not responding immediately was taken as proof of a lack of options and willy-nilly acceptance of the attack as a fait accompli.

Pakistan decided to respond at a time of its own choosing. Its response came after 30 hours. And thus begin Modi’s Ponting dilemma: Islamabad responded to the Indian strike by locking on a key military installation and then targeting an empty area to signal its capability, but opting not to escalate. In the ensuing air battle, PAF jammed the communication link of an IAF MiG-21 and shot it down. The pilot who managed to bail out was arrested. Leading Pakistani security analyst Qasier Tufail stated: “PAF retaliated within 30 hours of the IAF’s strike, and hit Indian targets with stand-off bombs, staying well within our own territory. The sizeable strike package including its escorts, as well as the accompanying fighter sweep aircraft, swamped the Indian air defence radar scopes and the patrolling Su-30 aircraft were promptly vectored towards the PAF swarm. Np sooner had the PAF strike fighters delivered the bombs and turned around, the F-16s and JF-17s swept the skies with very useful support from the data-linked airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and ground radars, as well as from their own formation members. The pilots were glued to their multi-function displays streaming vital information and firing cues. It was as if a whole squadron was playing a mass video game in the skies. With excellent situational awareness, and the adversary in disarray, an approaching Su-30 was targeted by one of the PAF fighters with a Beyond Visual Range missile. Besides the Su-30s, the patrolling IAF Mirage 2000s seemed shell-shocked as well and did not enter the fray. MiG-21 Bisons on ground alert had, therefore, to be scrambled. All this time PAF’s airborne and ground jammers were at work, and the IAF pilots and air defence controllers were thrown into total confusion. As one of the scrambled MiGs appeared on the radar scope of another PAF fighter aircraft, a missile was fired, which shot the MiG out of the sky, the pilot surviving by a whisker and parachuting into Pakistani territory.”

In the fog of war, the IAF panicked and destroyed its own M-17 helicopter killing seven people. New Delhi also mobilised its Navy and deployed a task force, including INS Vikramaditya, in the north Arabian sea. In May 2019, the Indian Naval chief claimed that during the crisis Indian Navy was “combat ready and mission deployed,” and if needed would have destroyed the Pakistani Navy. Ironically, the Indian Navy could not locate Pakistan Navy’s Agosta-90 B submarine throughout the crisis, whereas the Pakistan Navy’s P-3C Orion aircraft compelled the Indian Navy’s most advanced Scorpene-class submarine to surface. Sensing the table turning and Islamabad not playing according to Modi’s playbook and responding conventionally led Modi to reevaluate his options. With IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan under Pakistani custody and Indian Air Force failing to deter PAF’s response in broad daylight despite being on full alert, Modi’s New Delhi had only one option: escalate. Islamabad, after demonstrating its resolve and ability to maintain deterrence through conventional means, released Wing Commander Abhinandan as a peace gesture.

What can we as students of deterrence stability learn from Modi’s Ponting dilemma? And what could be the likely implications of this for the future of strategic stability in South Asia?

It was the first conflict between the two countries in which the air forces played a significant role and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles and AWACS were used. In an earlier piece, this scribe highlighted the stark difference in the crisis behavior of India and Pakistan: “India chose to attack mainland Pakistan using the Air Force. […] Unlike India, Pakistan restricted its response to the disputed territory, after locking on to military targets such as the Northern Command (15 Corps headquarters), it unlocked and targeted an empty area to ensure that the Indians get the message without escalating the conflict. Islamabad shot down an IAF MiG and unconditionally returned the pilot. The Pakistani Prime minister repeatedly called for a dialogue and peace. Even the Indian strategic community concedes this point: ‘Pakistan’s response stayed at the conventional level. Even at the conventional level, Pakistan’s response was arguably neither escalatory nor proportionate because no Indian facility was hit. Moreover, the Indian pilot whose plane was shot down by Pakistan in an aerial dogfight was returned without any concessions even being demanded from New Delhi.’”

Modi’s dilemma started when Islamabad responded. He his team thought they had entrapped Islamabad into a situation where it can only get out by either accepting the ‘new normal’ or by escalating at its own cost. However, they could not achieve either of the two. Instead, it was Modi who had to expand the conflict by involving the Indian Navy and threatening the use of missiles against Pakistan. And once faced with what I am calling the Ponting dilemma, the willingness he demonstrated to escalate is something that must not be ignored by the South Asia watchers.

Also, one wonders what would have happened if Islamabad had gone for a tit-for-tat response. And a number of further questions arise.

In keeping with Washington’s response to the Balakot strike, in future could it be taken as an honest broker? What does Modi’s willingness to escalate after facing the Ponting dilemma entail for the security and strategic stability in the region? How important is the correct reading of the strategic environment for strategic planners and thinkers, and for deterrence stability? These are the questions that must be objectively looked into.

For Modi, this scribe believes Dame Judie Dench has provided a master class in nuclear decision-making. In the Tomorrow Never Dies opening scene, responding to Admiral Roebuck’s remark that she “does not have the balls for this job,” she retorts “perhaps, but the advantage is, I don’t have to think with them all the time.”

Much more is required to decide when, what and how to take a decision in a nuclear environment.