Representational photo of a Mirage 2000 aircraft. (PTI)

Nuclear-Armed India and Pakistan Face Off in Renewed Escalation

(Bloomberg) -- The biggest escalation between South Asia’s nuclear-armed rivals in decades is testing both of their leaders: One seeking re-election, and the other facing his first real foreign-policy test.

With a bitterly contested national election in India just weeks away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to exploit his military’s air strikes on a terrorist camp inside Pakistan that his government said killed more than 300 people. They came in response to a Feb. 14 suicide car bombing in Kashmir claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed, which killed 40 members of India’s security forces.

Speaking on Tuesday to a huge, cheering crowd at an election rally in the state of Rajasthan, Modi twice stated that India was “in safe hands” and declared it a “glorious day,” without explicitly mentioning the attack.

Nuclear-Armed India and Pakistan Face Off in Renewed Escalation

Pakistan had its own version of events.

After scrambling its jets in response to India’s early-morning incursion across the border, it released photographs of missile remnants it said had fallen on unoccupied territory. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s office said Pakistan would respond “at the time and place of its choosing,” rejecting India’s claim that it had hit a terror camp or inflicted heavy casualties. “Once again the Indian government has resorted to a self-serving, reckless and fictitious claim,” a statement from Khan’s office said.

Facing the first major geopolitical challenge of his term, Khan directed the country’s armed forces and the public to “remain prepared for all eventualities.”

Escalating Tension

The question now is how will Pakistan respond.

“There will be some form of escalation,” Kamran Bokhari, the director of Strategy and Programs at Center for Global Policy with the University of Ottawa, said by phone. “Pakistan will have to strike back -- I am not saying this will lead to an all out war, but I don’t see that it’s over.”

India’s benchmark stock index S&P BSE Sensex fell 0.7 percent at close in Mumbai, recovering from a 1,4 percent drop. Across the border Pakistan’s main measure plunged 1.9 percent, the most since Dec. 6. India’s rupee was little changed at 71.03 to a dollar at 3:44 p.m. in Mumbai.

Today’s strikes represent the worst escalation since 2001, when Pakistan and India moved ballistic missiles and troops to their border following an attack on parliament in New Delhi that was also blamed on Jaish-e-Mohammad. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars since partition and independence in 1947.

Nuclear-Armed India and Pakistan Face Off in Renewed Escalation

“The last time the Indian Air Force crossed the line of control intentionally and publicly to conduct air strikes was 1971,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT, referring to the Indo-Pakistan war over Bangladesh.

Political Pressure

Facing a general election due by May, Modi is under substantial pressure after blaming Pakistan for the worst attack on security forces in Kashmir in several decades earlier this month.

Tuesday’s airstrikes show he’s “willing to take on risk to respond to Pakistan’s terrorist provocations,” said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. state department South Asia.

“It does appear to strengthen Modi’s hand heading into elections,” Ayres said. “Now the international diplomatic community should exert maximum pressure on Pakistan so this situation does not spiral.”

Islamabad has denied any role in the Feb. 14 attack, however Khan vowed to retaliate against India if it launched a military response.

Nuclear-Armed India and Pakistan Face Off in Renewed Escalation

“While details of the attack remain murky, we are already seeing India claiming a massive success while Pakistan is downplaying the true extent of the damages,” said Uzair Younus, a South Asia director at Washington-based consultancy Albright Stonebridge Group LLC. “The upside is that it’s likely that neither side will go up the escalation ladder following this attack.”

Both India and the U.S. see Pakistan as providing safe haven for terrorist groups and point to the fact that the leadership of groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the Mumbai attacks in 2008, still live freely in Pakistan.

There’s no doubt Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party will use the air strikes as an illustration of his forceful leadership, Eswaran Sridharan, academic director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India, said by phone.

“Modi comes out looking strong,” said Sridharan. “Whether it will swing the floating votes, that is difficult to say.”

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