Conciliatory statements found little or no play in the Pakistani media.
The “sabre-rattling” from different quarters in the Indian civil and military hierarchy has reinforced the growing perception in Pakistan that a hawkish security mindset and establishment is determining the mainstream narrative in India vis-à-vis Pakistan and the well-meaning Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may not be able to stay the course of dialogue.
This was articulated in no uncertain terms last Thursday by Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir who described the post-“Operation Geronimo” remarks by senior Indian political and military leaders as symptomatic of trends and tendencies within India which were trying to subvert Dr. Singh's agenda of normalising ties with Pakistan.
Earlier in the week, he had dismissed demands in India for surgical strikes against terror camps in Pakistan on the lines of the U.S. operation against al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as “a line of thinking mired in a mindset that is neither realistic nor productive”.
That Pakistan's civil and military leadership should warn of “terrible catastrophe” if India took this route was only to be expected after the media here picked up comments made by Indian Army Chief V.K. Singh and Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik about India having the capability to carry out a similar stealth operation.
In fact, India's military capability is something that Pakistan has always been wary of. The present Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had said on record to an Indian publication last year that Pakistan Army was India-centric and what mattered were not just India's intentions but also its capabilities. “Good intentions can change overnight,” he had said, and his words rang true as the sound bytes from India last week seemed to articulate a shift in the Mohali spirit.
Though External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao subsequently tried to bring down tempers by stating that the two countries need to remain engaged on various fronts, these statements could not wipe out the impact of the “bytes” given by the two Indian service chiefs.
The statements by the senior-most leadership of India's Foreign Ministry found little or no play in the Pakistani media, just like the background briefing provided to Indian and foreign journalists on Wednesday by the External Affairs Ministry.
That it is unrealistic to assume India can exercise a giant swatter-like approach towards Pakistan and the reasons to stay engaged got completely eclipsed by the remarks of the two men in uniform.
Drawing attention to the off-record briefing was also pointless as the fact that South Block did not initially want to go public with its pragmatic approach was seen as further evidence of the security establishment's stranglehold over New Delhi's Pakistan narrative. If anything, the divergent voices from India rekindled deep-rooted suspicions among the Pakistani right-wing and let down the pro-peace community who felt Indian service chiefs were being repeatedly allowed to queer the Indo-Pak pitch.
And, as one keen India-watcher pointed out, this is not the first time. Last October, Islamabad took strong exception to General Singh describing Pakistan and China as major irritants to India's national security. Such statements invariably get more play in Pakistan than in India; primarily because the Pakistani mindscape — conditioned to fear the uniformed services after years of martial rule — tends to take the voices of men in uniform more seriously than the political leadership anywhere.
Add to this 24x7 television news channels. Every shrill statement gets picked up and voices of sobriety are ignored in the competition for eyeballs and advertisement revenue. Even during the run-up to the World Cup cricket semi-final match between India and Pakistan, it was the shrillest of Indian coverage that got referred to here. To the extent that channels that are not particularly watched in India became the gospel truth here, all because they were showing Pakistan in a negative light or portraying the match as a war between the two countries. And, this view is seen as the Indian nation's attitude towards Pakistan.
No doubt, analysts and the Foreign Office are conscious of the pulls and pressures on Dr. Singh. Mr. Bashir reflected that when he tempered his “terrible catastrophe” warning with the observation that “we believe the Indian leadership does not subscribe to such a view” [conduct surgical strikes in Pakistan].
But, hawkish statements — often off-the-cuff remarks made to reporters — become putty in the hands of the hawks in Pakistan and help build and sustain the anti-India rhetoric. This time, say some die-hard advocates of democracy in Pakistan, these Indian statements gifted Pakistan's establishment — in particular, the deep state, as analysts describe the actual powers that be here — an opportunity to divert attention from what columnist Ayaz Amir described as “the mother of all embarrassments”.