Reacting rather late in the day and after Indo-Pakistan tensions had escalated considerably, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is said to have proclaimed that it can’t be “business as usual”. Yet, no sooner had Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, the much-underestimated Hina Rabbani Khar, announced in New York that she was willing to meet her Indian counterpart to thrash out matters—an offer New Delhi was quick to brush aside as inconsequential—that the ‘khoon ka badla khoon’ rhetoric ceased to dominate the news channels and the political attention was diverted to more mundane concerns such as the diesel subsidy and the never-ending speculation over Rahul Gandhi ceremonial entry into the prime ministerial race in 2014.

In all likelihood the next fortnight will witness a slow return to the “business as normal” syndrome—a testimony to the natural life span of a Prime Ministerial utterance. The ‘Aman ki asha’ brigade will gradually recover their voice, the Pakistani women’s cricket team will finish their tour of India happily and both sides will live happily, at least until the fire next time. 

Although it is tempting to breathe a sigh of relief over the abrupt termination of the blood games, it will be short-sighted to dismiss the January crisis as an incidental footnote to what TV anchors love to call the ‘big story’ and the ‘bigger picture’. There are some important features of this escalation of tensions along the Line of Control that warrants dissection.

First, it is sufficiently clear that neither the Indian nor Pakistani establishments expected the killings of two Indian and two Pakistani soldiers in cross-border firing and ambush to assume such enormous proportions. That it took Manmohan Singh nearly a week to make his first public utterance and the fact the experience Pakistan High Commissioner could afford to flash a broad smile when entering South Block in response to the Indian Foreign Secretary’s summons and rebuke, clearly indicated that both sides imagined this was a bout of shadow boxing that wouldn’t alter the ‘big picture’ of creeping bonhomie. ‘These things happen’ was the blasé response from both sides. 

Secondly, at the risk of being seen to be endorsing the Ms Khar’s indictment of “warmongers” in India, it is probably fair to say that the reaction in India was far sharper than across the border. This was primarily due to the Pakistani public preoccupation with the political crisis at home and the bewilderment over the emergence of Tahirul Qadri as the country’s Islamic Anna Hazare. In addition, it must be said that courtesy the wave of religious radicalism that has unsettled Pakistan in the past decade, the shock value of a beheading is far less there than it is in India. Pakistan has been brutalised and even dehumanised quite dramatically ever since it entered into a strategic alliance with the Afghan Taliban. And there is absolutely nothing to say that Pakistani army has not been deeply infected with a jihadi mindset that genuinely feels that decapitation of an infidel is the done thing.

Thirdly, the ferocity of the public response to the decapitation of an Indian soldier caught the establishment entirely unawares. The sense of outrage and exasperation that came across in the media and elsewhere didn’t happen because Pak-bashing had suddenly become “fashionable”, as the Pakistan High Commissioner seemed to suggest. It was entirely in line with the growing impression, at least throughout urban India, that the government of the day is incompetent, impotent and insensitive. Urban anger against a rotten system and a putrefying government has been gathering pace since the middle of 2010. It has manifested itself in spontaneous outbursts against corruption and against rape. This month it was expressed in the spontaneous but angry demand to teach Pakistan a lesson. As the government dithered over its response, the anger proved infectious and even touched a section of the armed forces. The strong responses from the chiefs of the Army and Air Force to the LoC killings were almost entirely dictated by the restiveness in the regiments. This is both revealing and even disturbing. 

Fourthly, the erratic mood swings of the government—from template expressions of concern to delaying the implementation of a more liberal visa regime for the over-65s—can be attributed almost entirely to its political fragility. If the Prime Minister genuinely felt that exercising exemplary restraint would have been rewarded by greater Indian goodwill among the so-called ‘democratic forces’ within Pakistan, he should have been absolutely forthright and been prepared to digest a bout of temporary unpopularity. That’s what real leadership is all about. Instead, the Indian response was guided almost entirely by political expediency and disingenuity. 

Finally, while there was an explosion of anti-Pakistan feeling in all sections barring the stakeholders in the Keep Visiting Pakistan project, public opinion had little to do with any encouragement from the Opposition. Even a ‘core’ issue couldn’t propel the BJP into overcoming its foot and mouth affliction. Sushma Swaraj’s demand of ten heads for one was singularly tasteless and helped in no small measure towards establishing a moral equivalence between India and Pakistan. And by calling for the matter to be taken to the UN, the beleaguered social entrepreneur from Nagpur demonstrated yet again his cluelessness about national issues and statecraft. 

He did one notch worse than the evergreen ‘youth icon’ who, as usual, had nothing to say. Crisis? What crisis? Who Pakistan?