Rhetoric and reality

Print edition : March 29, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah at a party meeting on election preparedness in New Delhi on March 8. Photo: PTI

A cropped version of a satellite image shows a close-up of a madrasa near Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The picture was taken on March 4. Photo: Planet Labs handout via Reuters

In the wake of the air strikes in Balakot, the nation is caught between warmongering right-wing political leaders and media on one side and a questioning, rational section of the public on the other.

Tocqueville’s seminal work discusses key issues concerning a democratic society such as equality, social justice, tyranny, liberalism and the principles of governance. It has stood the test of time and has been used as an important reference by political theorists and analysts all through these years.

In the much-talked-about Elections and War: The Electoral Incentive in the Democratic Politics of War and Peace (1999), the author and political analyst Kurt Taylor Gaubatz also refers to Tocqueville while addressing different facets of the linkages between democracy and war, and more specifically elections and war.

Analysing the variety of social and political churning in the interplay between these two “elemental phenomena” of democracy, Gaubatz flags several factors that constitute the “basic contrast” highlighted by Tocqueville and the manifestations they have in electoral cycles.

India has become a stark representation of the dichotomy and dilemma that Tocqueville pointed to long ago, even as it goes to elections in a few months against the backdrop of one of the worst terrorist attacks in its history, which killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, followed by cross-border air and land attacks between India and Pakistan, the capture of Indian Air Force (IAF) Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and intense international diplomatic parleys that led to his release.

Charged atmosphere

The atmosphere is one of protracted and involved debates on military positions and possibilities and perceived paradigm shifts in terms of strategic manoeuvres, along with their short-, medium- and long-term effects. But above all, it is a situation characterised by continuing and trenchant warmongering on one side and pointed questions against such attempts on the other. Several occurrences in different parts of the country have become telling illustrations of this development.

On March 1, Bhadani village in Jhajjar district of Haryana witnessed the cremation of Sergeant Vikrant Sherawat of the IAF who had died in a helicopter crash on February 27 at Budgam in Jammu and Kashmir. The background in which the crash happened was indeed marked by hostilities across the border between India and Pakistan, but the authorities on both sides made it clear that the helicopter had fallen on account of “technical failures” and that military operations were not responsible for the death of Sherawat and five other IAF personnel, namely Squadron Leaders Siddharth Vashisht and Ninad Mandavgane, Corporals Pankaj Kumar and Deepak Pandey and Flight Engineer Vishal Kumar Pandey.

Sherawat’s cremation was intensely emotive, with over one lakh people attending it, including Haryana’s Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, Finance Minister Captain Abhimanyu and Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Minister O.P. Dhankar. Thousands of people lined the streets through which Sherawat’s mortal remains were brought to Bhadani, showering flower petals at many places. Fervent expressions of patriotism, complete with slogans about wreaking vengeance on the enemy, rent the air.

Even as this mood spread across Jhajjar and surrounding areas, Shamli in western Uttar Pradesh, some 150 kilometres from Bhadani, witnessed the eruption of a different stream of popular sentiment. This sentiment emerged essentially from the family of Pradeep Kumar of Shamli, who was one of the CRPF jawans killed in the February 14 suicide bomber attack at Pulwama, which set off the chain of hostilities in the subsequent weeks. Kumar’s family raised questions about the Indian response to Pulwama by way of the February 26 Balakot air strikes.

The strike was reportedly done with 12 Mirage 2000H jets of the IAF that crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir and struck an area inside Pakistan, where a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist training camp existed. It was claimed as the first ever strike across the LoC on a terrorist camp in 50 years and was followed by unprecedented levels of speculation and rumour-mongering that dominated the discourse around it. Contributing to the confusion was the lack of credible information from the government.

The original claim was that the air operation had dropped 1,000 kilograms of bombs and had completely decimated the terrorist camp run from a madrasa. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale claimed that the JeM’s “terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and jehadis” had all been eliminated.

Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa said that the IAF was not in a position to provide clarity on the number of casualties as it only counted the targets hit or missed rather than human casualties. Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor also said that it was premature to assess the casualties or damage caused.

Yet, members of the government bandied figures of casualties running into hundreds. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah claimed that 250 terrorists were killed, while some media outfits claimed that at least 300 were killed. The Pakistani government reported that there were no casualties. Former Union Minister P. Chidambaram tweeted: “IAF Air Vice Marshal declined to comment on casualties. MEA statement said there were no civilian or military casualties. So, who put out the number of casualties as 300-350?” Senior Congress leader Manish Tewari too accused the BJP of milking the air strike for politics.

It was in this context that Pradeep Kumar’s family sought “decisive proof” of the Balakot strikes. This sentiment resonated in different quarters too, especially among the families of the CRPF jawans killed in Pulwama.

In Mainpuri of Uttar Pradesh, the home district of slain CRPF jawan Ram Vakeel, the questions from the jawan’s neighbourhood were more nuanced and revolved around the point whether the country was being pushed into a “diversionary war” by the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre.

Many of Vakeel’s relatives and friends told Frontline that they were constrained to ask this because they were aware that the Modi government’s track record, especially in terms of handling the agrarian crisis and fulfilling the promise of massive employment generation, was being questioned across the country, even by the Prime Minister’s former allies and supporters.

The developments on the Rafale aircraft deal, some of them said, including the government’s flip-flop in the Supreme Court on the exposes on the deal and the “stolen papers” that made the revelations possible, had only added to this growing suspicion. (See “Rafale debate in a new light” on page 8.)

Foreign media reports

Foreign media reports indicated that the raids were not the kind of major success that Amit Shah was portraying them to be. Pakistan had countered India’s claims by stating that India’s warplanes, facing pressure from the Pakistani side, dropped their ammunition on a deserted hillside in haste as they tried to escape.

The New York Times reported that it was unclear what the Indian jets had hit on the Pakistan side. It quoted an analyst from the London-based Jane’s Information Group, who said that according to intelligence sources the JeM’s camps had already been shifted or shut down in recent times. The Washington Post said that the raid was conducted away from Balakot town, but local police officials and residents said that they saw no signs of mass casualties. The Guardian said there was damage to trees and a house but no significant destruction.

The Daily Telegraph reported that one person was injured in the air strike. Al Jazeera included the testimony of an injured person but said there were no casualties. On the basis of its high-resolution satellite imagery, Reuters stated that no building or madrasa had been destroyed as claimed by India. Images produced by a San Francisco-based private operator called Planet Labs Inc showed six buildings standing at the site of the madrasa that India claimed the IAF had destroyed. No evidence of any destruction to the structure or to nearby areas was found in the images. The Parliamentary Standing Committee headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor wanted the External Affairs Ministry to clarify the objective of the air strike. Asking whether the international media’s reports that there was no proof of militant losses at Balakot were pro-Pakistan, Congress leader Kapil Sibal wondered whether Modi was guilty of politicising terror.

“The Prime Minister must speak on reports by international media that say hardly anyone died there [in Balakot]. I want to ask him: Is international media in support of Pakistan? When international media speaks against Pakistan, you feel elated. When they ask questions, it’s asking because it supports Pakistan?” he said.

Questioning the authenticity of the air strikes, Congress leader Ajay Singh said that sooner or later, the truth behind the whole sequence of events would be revealed.

Meanwhile, on February 27, the day after the Balakot air strike, Pakistani F-16s entered Indian airspace and engaged in combat with IAF planes. (Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan later said that the purpose of the incursion was to demonstrate that Pakistan was well-equipped to defend against any Indian aggression.) One Indian MiG Bison and one F-16 were felled during the exchange. It was in this confrontation that Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured by the Pakistan military (“Return of a hero”, page 24).

As the country watched with bated breath, diplomatic parleys were initiated along with a battle of perception involving both the Indian and Pakistani leaderships. In the end, India succeeded in obtaining the release of Abhinandan at the Attari-Wagah border.

Imran Khan also invited Modi to sit together for talks and resolve issues through dialogue, but these gestures have not reached a stage of concrete initiatives.

Large sections of the Indian media, especially television channels, have become unmistakable allies of the Modi government, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar in their jingoistic campaign (“Playing to the gallery”, page 27).

The responses from the larger security establishment, especially the objective observers within it, have been much more nuanced than the unilateral projections from the belligerent segments of the media and the Hindutva outfits. Many of them pointed out that after the air strikes from both sides, both India and Pakistan were claiming victory and that these claims were debatable in terms of several operations-related factors.

Attempts at polarisation

The not-so-ulterior motives of this jingoistic, hyper nationalism pursuit of the BJP and its cohorts were laid bare by B.S. Yeddyuruppa, former Karnataka Chief Minister and the party’s national vice president, when he claimed that the air strikes had enthused the youth of Karnataka to such an extent that it would help the BJP win as many as 22 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the State. Until he made this blatant claim, the attempt of the BJP leadership was to portray that only the party and its government were capable of taking on Pakistan and jehadi terrorists.

When Yeddyuruppa’s statement drew flak not only from independent observers and opposition parties but also from allies in the NDA such as the Republican Party of India and the Shiv Sena, the BJP leadership, including Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, sought to raise the bogey that the opposition was trying to politicise the situation by raising questions on the forces, their capabilities and the strikes.

The effort was clearly to depict the BJP as the only patriotic party and all others as traitors who were helping Pakistan by questioning the operations of the forces. This campaign, too, has had a limited impact. Even long-term associates of the BJP in the media were constrained to openly question this campaign, apparently because it evoked responses in opposition from serving and retired senior officers in the forces.

These responses also underscored the fact that the entire opposition had stood in solidarity with the government and all its initiatives right from Pulwama. The entire opposition had congratulated the forces for the decisive action. However, many of these responses were about how the BJP sought to make political capital out of the developments by resorting to hype. Its overdrive virtually forced the opposition to counter it by questioning the claims on casualties.

Paradigm shift

Lieutenant General Satish Dua, who retired a few months ago after serving the Army in Kashmir for a long duration, including as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff and as a counter terrorism expert, told Frontline that the election rhetoric and political bravado on the current confrontation should not cloud one’s strategic perceptions.

He was of the view that countering a terrorist attack using the IAF to strike across the border marked a paradigm shift. “It is a shift that could ultimately impel Pakistan to curb its oft-repeated stratagems of arming and sending these non-state players across the border. And, of course, the immediate and medium-term dividends from the air strikes would go to the BJP as they are the ruling party. But this should not stop with one air strike. India must shed its soft state image and launch more air strikes into Pakistan to convey the message that it is serious about tackling the problem.”

Dua also said that simply killing terrorists in Kashmir was not going to solve the larger problem of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. “The space left vacant by an inept and corrupt political leadership in the State has been filled by separatists over the past few decades and that too needs to be corrected,” he said. Dua is credited with leading the surgical strikes in 2016 along with Lt Gen. (Retd) D.S. Hooda, who has since joined the Congress.

On the conflicting reportage by the international media and the claims of Amit Shah and television channels about the strike’s casualties, Dua said that the figures would slowly emerge and that no official figures had been revealed by the IAF so far.

“Our job is to hit the target. The human cost of the strike can be ascertained only through human sources on the ground. It is inside Pakistani territory, so how can we know offhand? The figures will only emerge slowly. These things cannot be hidden for long. The figures bandied about were nothing more than guesstimates or exaggeration. Moreover, it is not the duty of the armed forces to provide evidence to the public of the strikes,” Dua pointed out.

However, there is a growing perception that the political leadership should give a clear picture, and questions on this are emerging from the grass-roots level, although limited in scale, as seen in Shamli and Mainpuri.

However, such questions are being countered by the ideological and political apparatus of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led (RSS) Sangh Parivar, which has been persisting with polarising attempts following the Pulwama attack.

In the immediate aftermath of the February 14 attack, components of the Sangh Parivar, including Tathagata Roy, the Governor of Meghalaya, called for multidimensional attacks on Kashmiris. Outfits such as the Bajrang Dal went about hundreds of towns and villages, especially in the north and the west, looking for Kashmiri students and traders and assaulting and evicting them from their homes, educational institutions and commercial establishments, while people like Roy called for the social and economic boycott of Kashmiris.

Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh issued calls for the attacks to stop, several days after the organised assaults were launched, but that has not stopped the systematic advancement of communal polarisation by Sangh Parivar outfits.

On March 6, two Kashmiri traders were brutally attacked by a group of Sangh Parivar activists at Daliganj in Lucknow. The traders tried to tell the mob that they had been doing business in Uttar Pradesh for over 22 years, but that fell on deaf ears. They were rescued by a group of people of the Daliganj locality, making it clear to the Sangh Parivar activists that their communal and divisive exertions were not acceptable.

Like the pointed questions in Mainpuri, this rescue also underscored the contrasting public mood amid the warmongering of the leadership and the Sangh Parivar’s attempts at polarisation.

Will this ultimately push India’s democratic polity into a full-fledged diversionary war that would be difficult to end? The answer lies in the estimations of the Modi regime, the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar about returning to power in the forthcoming election.

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