Between Doka La standoff and Balakot strikes, here's how India lost the plot in its communication strategy
India’s ability to set the narrative and achieve consistency in messaging post Balakot seems to have nosedived compared to its performance during the Doka La stand-off with China.
Not a single country criticised India's move to strike deep inside Pakistan territory
What changed at Balakot? The involvement of Pakistan
Balakot should act as an important milestone in India’s communication strategy
Balakot strikes have been a strategic and diplomatic victory for India. Forget the vacuous debate over terrorist body count, the real win for India lies in the fact that it showed its ability to strike deep within Pakistan’s territory to demolish terror facilities and do so under the nuclear threshold. This enables India to impose costs on Pakistan for its terror tactics. The strikes alone may not modify Pakistan’s behaviour, but India’s retaliation introduces an element of uncertainty into the dynamic and forces Rawlpindi back to the asymmetric war drawing board.
No less significant has been India’s diplomatic victory. It is easy to be taken in by Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan’s (whose mayoral status also includes doubling as the military spokesperson) dialogue that release of Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman within two days of his capture was a ‘gesture for peace’. Pakistan Army, which effectively takes these decisions, was under tremendous international pressure — even from Islamic nations which it counts among its staunch backers such as the UAE or Saudi Arabia — to release the IAF pilot after Pakistan Air Force (PAF) targeted Indian military installations and made it difficult for New Delhi not to climb the escalation ladder. Wing Commander Abhinandan ejected into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and unwittingly became a crucial leverage that Rawapindi successfully used as a face-saver to de-escalate the crisis.
Not a single country, not to speak of the United Nations Security Council or even China, opposed or criticised India’s move to launch cross-border air strikes deep inside Pakistan’s sovereign territory. Though India had been careful to use nomenclature such as ‘non-military, preemptive strikes’, no one had any serious doubts that the kinetic action was a retaliation for the terror attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pulwama.
Not to be missed was the international reaction after Pakistan sent its fighter jets into Indian airspace. The universal call was for “restraint” and advice to Pakistan to dismantle its terror infrastructure. Equally notable was India’s invite to address the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) ministerial that displeased Pakistan no end. The engagement with the Islamic nations in West Asia must count among India’s unequivocal diplomatic wins.
Yet, for all these achievements, one could be forgiven for thinking that Balakot and its aftermath was a disaster for India and it is Pakistan that walked away with all the plaudits, including a clamour for the Nobel Peace prize for Imran ‘Taliban’ Khan. It is not surprising that India’s gains seem too theoretical against Pakistan prime minister’s gesture of “releasing” Wing Commander Abhinandan — which it was bound to anyway under the Geneva Conventions — for which it received praise from China and got to claim the moral high ground.
Pakistan’s PR victory over India post Balakot is primarily due to two concurrent reasons. The effectiveness of Pakistan’s and the dismal nature of India’s communication strategy. Add to this the fact that Pulwama occurred just ahead of the general elections in India and it became inevitable that domestic politics will play a huge part in clash of narratives. Balakot posed a problem for India’s communications strategy because national security imperatives directly clashed with necessity of the political parties to cater to their core constituencies.
Let’s begin with a tweet by Michael Kugelman of Washington DC-based Wilson Center who holds forth on Pakistan-related issues.
Today, for the first time, I was part of an Indian TV debate on the India-Pak crisis that also featured a Pakistani guest. My earmuffs were at the ready. Interestingly, there was more shouting among the Indian participants than between the Indian & Pakistani guests. Go figure.
— Michael Kugelman (@MichaelKugelman) March 6, 2019
Kugelman’s tweet gives us an idea how India’s domestic political prerogatives have overshadowed national security interests and consequently the space for a successful communication strategy has shrunk. When Indian guests are fighting among themselves to establish their narratives on a TV show, it becomes easy for the Pakistani analyst to exploit the dissonance. This is a microcosm of the issue that dogs India vis-à-vis Pakistan.
Strangely, India’s ability to set the narrative and achieve consistency in messaging post Balakot seems to have nosedived compared to its performance during the Doka La standoff with China. Writing for The Times of India, Indrani Bagchi pointed out that “during Doklam, there was a strict rein on loose talk by politicians and TV. This time, lurid fantasies are political statements and anonymous opinion by spook agencies headlines. It has been a relentless “open-mouth-change-feet” parade by ministers, opposition and hyperventilating TV anchors.”
This is a pertinent point and it is explained by the timing of the incident and the parties involved in it. The Doka La standoff with China dominated the news cycle for almost its entire 70-day duration, yet despite provocative statements from Chinese media and aggressive posturing from Beijing, India never faltered on its messaging. New Delhi earned universal plaudits for its measured tone and constant endeavor to play down the nature of the crisis.
What changed at Balakot? The involvement of Pakistan completely changed the game. The sensitiveness of India-Pakistan relations, the baggage of history and the place of Pakistan in India’s popular psyche make for a volatile mix. The proximity of the incident to general elections complicates it further. The Union government could control the narrative during the border conflict with China because politicians of all hue had no immediate political incentive in cashing in on the conflict. The power differential between India and China placed further restraint on this dynamic. Politicians in India were aware — including the most loud-mouthed ones — that bluster may backfire.
Against Pakistan those two crucial variables were missing. India sees itself as a bigger power than its western neighbour and the issue invokes such passion among the masses that it is impossible for politicians not to exploit it while addressing their ‘base’. Now, if this happens bang in the middle of an elections season, one can imagine how caution is likely to be thrown to the wind.
To a certain extent this entire dynamic is reflected in the media space, where search for higher television rating points (TRPs) prompt anchors to thump the table louder against Pakistan and peddle dubious, unverified claims. This could be a condition forced by the openness of a democratic political system that cannot stifle voices, unlike a pseudo-democracy such as Pakistan where the military calls the shots and controls all the levers of a disinformation campaign. India’s staid, mundane and bureaucratic response during a live conflict in age of social media and mobile phones left large gaps for lurid claims to fill. In effect, instead of Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s statement on the Balakot strikes, which was measured and appropriate, what the world may remember are the tub-thumping claims made on Indian TV channels and by irresponsible political actors.
The Opposition has equally failed to carry out its share of the responsibility. In their quest to strive for some political space, it wittingly or unwittingly mirrored Pakistan’s version of the events, making it easier for the adversary to control the narrative.
As ORF president Samir Saran wrote, “Indian governments and political actors (including those in the Opposition) must learn how to communicate both universally and to their base. If these are at odds with each other, especially during conflict, it is the national brand and interest that is compromised most. Strategic communications is an evolving arena and many in India would do well to go back to school to appreciate its new intricacies.”
Balakot should thus act as an important milestone in India’s communication strategy. It provides a ready reckoner on how a State should not behave while trying to set the narrative of a conflict in age of social media and mobile phones.
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