AS Dulat is among India’s foremost experts on India-Pakistan relations and Kashmir. Since the late 1980s, he has worked in several high-ranking government offices in Jammu and Kashmir, giving him a ringside view of its highest political circles. Dulat went on to serve as the chief of the Research and Analysis Wing and the special director of the Intelligence Bureau between 1999 and 2000, during the Kargil war. From 2000 to 2004, during the term of the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Dulat served as his advisor on Kashmir.
In a conversation with Arshu John, an assistant web editor at The Caravan, Dulat discussed the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan. On 26 February, India conducted air strikes in Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, following a militant attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy, on the Jammu-Srinagar highway in Pulwama. The following day, tensions escalated as the two nations engaged in an aerial confrontation, which resulted in Pakistan capturing an Indian pilot. The Pakistan government has stated the pilot will be released from custody on 1 March. “I did not expect this sort of reaction,” Dulat said, commenting on India’s air strike. He added that it could be seen in the context of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in India.
Pulwama was a terrible tragedy. The immediate government reaction was, “If this is what you are going to do, we will show you.” So I think it was inevitable that something was going to happen, and it had to be something bigger than the previous surgical strike. That is the context in which these air strikes took place. But it was equally inevitable that Pakistan would react, and they reacted immediately, the day after the air strikes.
Though I did not expect this sort of reaction to Pulwama, I am no one to comment on whether the Indian response was a correct one. But the Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan’s reaction to the Balakot strikes has been interesting—in particular, his offer for peace talks and willingness to discuss everything, including terrorism. Khan is signaling that Pakistan has done what it had to do after the air strikes. The message is: “We did not want to do this, but you provoked us, so we have done it.” The international community has also called for de-escalation. As a result, Khan has now grown in stature—in Pakistan and internationally.
With Narendra Modi, it remains to be seen how the air strikes will affect his perception at an international level. In India, the feeling is that he is going to gain in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections as a result of the response. The elections will be in the minds of certain people—that is also why I think something was going to give this time, and also why a response to the Pulwama attack was inevitable.