India has been battling crossborder terrorism with no clear success for more than three decades. Fear of possible nuclear escalation by Pakistan has traditionally restricted successive Indian governments in responding to such attacks, a fear which became particularly acute after India and Pakistan went openly nuclear in 1998.
However, the Indian airstrike on a terrorist camp in Balakot within Pakistan in February 2019, in response to a terrorist attack by Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Muhammad that killed nearly 40 Indian troops, is indicative of a possible change in Indian thinking.
It remains unclear if this was a one-off response driven by domestic audience pressures or a broader shift in strategy. But if it is a change in strategy, New Delhi needs to be better prepared for escalation in the future than it as yet appears to be.
Even before coming to office in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had implied that his government would address Pakistan-sponsored terrorism differently. The first instance of this difference as reflected in action was in 2016 when the Indian government carried out retaliatory strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) in response to a terrorist attack on an Indian Army camp at Uri in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed 19 Indian soldiers.
While reports suggest that such retaliatory strikes took place in the past as well, this was different. This time around, the Indian government chose to publicise these strikes, calling them “surgical strikes.” In the past, even when limited strikes were undertaken across the LoC, it was not advertised for fear that there could be tit-for-tat retaliation that could spiral into a full-fledged conflict, possibly escalating to a nuclear exchange between the two countries.
This fear of escalation has for long had a significant influence on Indian decisionmakers. India likely did not respond to major terrorist attacks, be it the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 or the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, because of this fear.
Therefore, the decision to take credit for the 2016 surgical strikes possibly indicated new Indian thinking on escalation and deterrence in the India-Pakistan context.