BJP and the air strike

Boast and bluster

Print edition : March 29, 2019

BJP activists celebrating the Balakot air strike in Amritsar on February 26. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

Even as the target and the outcome of the Balakot air strikes remain in the realm of speculation, the Narendra Modi government has allowed its arms to deploy various tactics, speak in multiple voices and keep the debate live until the elections so that all other issues get sidelined.

Post Balakot, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s jingoistic chest-thumping and berating of its rivals who question its claims, while the Narendra Modi government maintains a deafening silence, suggests that this is the party’s political narrative for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. How else can one explain the displaying of pictures of Pulwama victims at a political rally or the donning of battle fatigues by Delhi BJP president Manoj Tiwari while leading a bicycle rally? Or, indeed, the BJP leaders’ bravado in claiming figures varying from 250 to 400 as the number of casualties in the Balakot air strike?

This is not to suggest that the air strike did not inflict any damage on terrorist camps or that the Indian fighter planes missed their target. The Indian Air Force (IAF) chief was stating the truth when he said that “it is not for us to count the casualties. We are given a target to hit and we hit the target.” It is for the government to clarify both the target and the outcome. This is the first time since the 1971 India-Pakistan war that Indian war planes entered Pakistani airspace. In the early hours of February 26, they struck at specifically identified targets and returned without a scratch. Such a daring air exercise had not taken place even during the Kargil War. On February 27, 24 F16 fighter planes of Pakistan reportedly retaliated by violating the Indian airspace. They were apparently headed for Jammu and Kashmir but were intercepted by MiG-21 Bison aircraft of the IAF. In the ensuing air combat, one MiG-21 was shot down and its pilot taken into custody by the Pakistani military. The Indian fighter jets also shot down a Pakistan fighter plane which fell in Pakistani territory and whose pilot was apparently lynched by local people who suspected that he was Indian.

The Indian authorities were expected to go into overdrive and brief the national and international media with precise details and evidence, not least because of the geopolitical and strategic importance of the region. What followed, though, was a hurriedly organised briefing by Foreign Ministry officials. On the day of the Indian air strikes, it was the Foreign Secretary, V.K. Gokhale, who briefed the media. He said that “pre-emptive non-military” air strikes had been carried out by Indian fighter planes, based on intelligence inputs, in order to foil Pulwama-like attacks, and that a large number of terrorists, trainers and commanders had been eliminated. On the second day, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs briefed the media, saying that Pakistani fighter planes had intruded into Indian airspace but were pushed back by Indian fighter jets, and also that one MiG-21 had been shot down in the process, and its pilot was MIA (missing in action). He presented proof that the intruding Pakistani fighter planes were F16s but would not take questions on the plea that the details were yet to be received.

What followed was frenzied chest-thumping and backslapping by leaders of the BJP and its affiliates, who congratulated themselves for teaching Pakistan a lesson and for having eliminated a large number of Pakistan-based terrorists who were planning Pulwama-like attacks on Indian soil. While Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and the BJP’s star campaigner Yogi Adityanath said in a public meeting that 300 militants had been killed, his deputy, Keshav Prasad Maurya, said that 400 had been killed. Amit Shah, BJP president, addressing a rally in Ahmedabad, claimed that 250 militants had been killed. BJP leaders addressed public meetings with battle scenes as background props; one even had pictures of the Pulwama victims. Meanwhile, there was no word from the Central government about the precise extent of damage inflicted on the terrorists; no official explanation was offered, nor details, as promised by the Foreign Secretary, forwarded.

While the world media, citing satellite images and field reports and quoting eyewitnesses, said no damage had been caused at Balakot, the BJP leaders continued to claim that hundreds of “militants” had been killed. Even the IAF was silent about the claims. Surprisingly, given that such an extensive air combat had taken place between the two countries, a first since the 1971 war, the IAF held no official briefing to inform the media about what exactly had happened. Everything remained in the realm of speculation, with the government doing nothing to either dispel doubts or confirm facts.

This led to questions from opposition party leaders, who were then slammed by BJP leaders as anti-nationals who doubted the capability of the armed forces. In the ensuing nationalistic cacophony, all other voices have been shouted down, with the electronic media playing a willing accomplice. The narrative has become so charged that anyone who dares to ask about the outcome of air strikes risks becoming anti-national.

A senior serving Army official said: “This is definitely a very disturbing development. Military operations have happened in the past as well and there have always been joint official briefings by military and civil officials. You could either agree with their assessment or you could question them. All this is perfectly legitimate. Not so long ago, we carried out a similar operation against insurgents along the India-Myanmar border and inflicted heavy casualties on Naga militants holed up in Myanmar. There were joint civil and military briefings about the operation at that time and there was no room for any speculation.”

The military operation referred to by this official was carried out on June 7, 2015, after 18 Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush by Naga militants at Chandel in Manipur. The decision of “hot pursuit” against insurgents was taken and accordingly commandos of the 21 Para (Special Forces), an elite fighting arm of the Indian Army, carried out the surgical strike, killing 38 insurgents. The entire operation lasted for about 40 minutes. The Army put out an official statement and the Defence Ministry spokesperson, too, released a detailed account of the operation. The Army’s statement also sounded a warning to similar elements active on the western front, in a reference to Pakistan-supported terrorist activities along the India-Pakistan border. The defence establishment at that time had kept the media informed about facts such as when the exercise was planned, who was involved in the planning, and how it was to be conducted. In fact, using air strikes was considered an option but later rejected, given the fear of heavy collateral damage. Manohar Parrikar was the Defence Minister and General Dalbir Singh Suhag was the Army chief.

After the recent surgical strike, neither the Defence Ministry nor the IAF has bothered to offer any detailed explanation clarifying the scenario. Even during the Kargil War, there were daily joint briefings by the Foreign Affairs Ministry and military officials. If, say, the foreign media are biased, then the government should tell the nation what exactly had happened and the world can decide for itself. Considering that the entire operation has been shrouded in mystery, and the vastly exaggerated narratives peddled in public meetings, one wonders if they are a ploy to deflect attention from issues of real importance.

Veterans concerned

While serving officers cannot voice their opinions publicly, veterans have been talking openly about the government’s political gambit. Major General (Retd) Satbir Singh, who spearheaded the agitation for One Rank One Pension (OROP), says this is the first time the government has used an “impeccable” military operation as a political tool. “Our boys did what they were supposed to do. It was for the government to bring the details out in the public domain. They are keeping it a mystery and using it for their own benefit. They have all the proof with them and perhaps they would release it gradually, to time with the election dates,” he said.

Meanwhile, Admiral L. Ramdas, former Navy chief, has gone on record saying the veterans have been “concerned about the use of the armed forces for political gains especially in the aftermath of Pulwama and Balakot”. In an open letter to the Election Commission on March 7, he said that it was disconcerting to note that certain political parties were using the recent developments for their own vested interests, through pictures, posters, uniforms and so on. He requested the Election Commission to ensure that “there should not be any misuse of these events to send triumphalist or jingoistic messages which can influence the electorate”.

“Influencing the electorate” indeed seems to be the aim of the government in the recent developments as it has allowed its arms to deploy various tactics, speak in multiple voices and keep the debate live until the elections so that all other issues get sidelined.

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