In the wee hours of 29 September, the Indian army conducted a 'surgical strike' on terror launch pads 'along' the LoC, announced DGMO Ranbir Singh, reading out from a prepared statement at a presser. He was accompanied by Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup. This operation was in response to the terrorist strikes on Indian soil, including the ones in Poonch and Uri on 11 and 18 of September respectively, Singh said.
The DGMO's announcement triggered a euphoric phase among Indians who were desperately seeking vengeance for the killings of jawans and wanting a clear message sent to Pakistan. Everyone — the Opposition parties, bureaucrats, industry and the aam aadmi — lauded the Narendra Modi government's political will. Every Indian felt exalted by the reinvigorated feeling of patriotism that united everyone against our one sure common threat: Pakistan.
At the presser, the DGMO said the action was limited to militant camps and not Pakistani Army outposts, adding that India doesn't plan any more such attacks unless provoked. This was said with the idea of not escalating the tension between India and Pakistan and also to offer a face-saver to Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistani Army.
Jingoism all around
But, what followed were days of jingoism and chest-thumping. BJP leaders across the country celebrated as if the Modi government had just won a full-fledged war over Pakistan. They narrated stories of how Modi's unprecedented determination and political will made something finally possible that was seemingly unthinkable in the past. Social media patriots worked overnight from their living rooms to escalate a cyber war with their Pakistani counterparts.
The magnitude of hype and hoopla over the "surgical strikes" was such that some BJP leaders even projected this — a matter of national security — as the party's trump card for the state elections. Posters put up by the BJP and its on-off ally Shiv Sena in UP and Punjab after the army's surgical strikes portrayed Modi as Lord Ram, aiming his weapon at Nawaz Sharif, Raavan. The soldier who actually fought this fight couldn't find a place on the poster though.
Then there was a comment from Defence Minister Manohar Parikar. "Indian troops were like Hanuman who did not quite know their prowess before the surgical strikes," Parrikar said.
What was supposed to be an important covert military operation suddenly found itself morphed into a political tool. What worsened the situation was the excessive jingoism on TV news channels. Some TV anchors appeared to wage a war across the LoC from their air-conditioned studios.
Often, they appointed themselves as new age icons of patriotic, nationalistic ideals. The media — that should be a dispassionate observer — started increasingly using words like 'martyred' instead of 'killed' for soldiers in its reports and often constructed 'stories' that weren't true to the facts. The excessive jingoism turned into rather imaginative — rather than fact-based — reporting. Thus, we saw tweets and reports about how over "50 Pakistanis were killed during the surgical strikes across LoC" and how "two terrorists" were 'neutralised' at Baramulla even as the soldiers shooting into the darkness themselves didn't have a clue about what was happening on the ground.
There was no official confirmation for any of these killings that supposedly took place during the media surgical operations. But it is always easy to pull out a ticker flashing at the bottom of a TV screen or to delete a tweet. Various arms of the media also vied with each other to take the army's Special Forces as far as they possibly could — from just across the LoC to two or three kilometres into PoK. A combination of jingoism and poorly-sourced reports followed.
But the result of all this high drama and political over-hype on a subject of national security took matters to such an extent that the army operation became the subject of unwarranted scrutiny. The fact that the DGMO presser and subsequent comments from the government offered no details of the surgical operation to media provided fodder to speculation. One cannot rule out selective leaks of information from army or government sources to the media, but most of these were self-contradictory.
Things changed dramatically since then.
The aam aadmi on the street and in front of TV screens didn't know where these details emerged from. This changed the initial euphoria among the aam aadmi about the surgical strike to a state of confusion and, later, doubt. Modi-haters on social media soon jumped into action on the theory that the surgical strikes were yet another case of 'Modi jhumla'. When the TV channels too ran out of 'patriotic' angles, they shifted the core focus to the truth of the claim — whether the surgical strikes took place or not. The idea was to keep the viewer glued to the TV screen somehow. Even as the army maintained its dignified silence, the season of denials and counter-claims over what was originally a matter of national security, kicked off in its political courts and TV shows.
How the government lost the plot
By letting the DGMO announce the military's surgical strike and totally staying away from the scene, the Modi government started the Uri payback episode on a strong note with calculated moves. The political decision to use the army only to strike at specific 'terror launch pads' without inflicting damage to the Pakistani military establishment, communicating the details of the strike in an official capacity to the Pakistani Army and giving a clear message that India isn't a war-hungry nation, but wouldn't tolerate acts of terror on its soil, sent out strong signals to the world that India is a responsible democracy and a strong state.
Will it be an exaggeration to say that from a heroic act by the Indian Army, the 'surgical' strikes' suddenly became the butt of jokes for social media warriors and political blame-gamers?
But the government lost the plot subsequently in two stages:
First, when it absolutely failed to keep a check on the vague — often contradictory — information going out in the media from 'sources' and through possible selective leaks. When jingoistic folks started coming up with a new narrative every other day on behalf of the army, the Modi government found itself caught in a dilemma. It didn't know how to handle the situation. There were two sides to this problem of multiple narratives and later, denials. The political repercussions soon forced the aam aadmi to do a rethink on the whole mission who was initially euphoric about Modi's 'Uri revenge'. Next, the world too began to murmur about the exact nature of India's surgical strikes, although it was not put on public domain citing strategic concerns.
The second stage came when the government failed to face the questions on surgical strikes from politicians with maturity and tactics and, instead, let its ministers attack the questioners with aggression and bitterness. As noted in an earlier article, when the likes of Sanjay Nirupam, Arvind Kejriwal and former Congress minister P Chidambaram raised questions on the veracity of the surgical strikes, the government and the BJP political leadership failed to face those with balance (or even to simply ignore them), instead resorting to jingoism using hyperbole. Take a look at Union minister Uma Bharti's response to this:
"Those leaders who say that if Pakistan is demanding evidence about the surgical strike, they should be given the evidence; such people should take the citizenship of Pakistan," Bharti told reporters in Pune.
Here was where they made a mistake: When the Pakistani Army went into denial mode from the first day on India's claims of surgical strikes, it was an expected reaction. That's because everyone knows what Pakistan is. But that wasn't the case when questions were raised in a democracy with a multipolar political setup. The questions were not on whether the strikes took place, but on the political narrative that followed. The entire operation was portrayed by BJP leaders as the first-of-its-kind in the Indian Army's history, while former generals and a former home minister said that wasn't the case.
When the media jumped in to follow-up comments from the Kejriwals and Nirupams, their questions undoubtedly gained more legitimacy. The crux of the discussions suddenly changed to "Did the surgical attacks take place?" from "How India smartly responded to Uri" or "What should be done with Pakistan next?". The growing group of naysayers forced the army to finally share the video of the surgical strikes with the government, something it needn't have done.
Will it be an exaggeration to say that from a heroic act by the Indian Army, the 'surgical' strikes' suddenly became the butt of jokes for social media warriors and political blame-gamers? Clearly, the government shouldn't have let the situation degrade to this level and should have dealt with its own ministers on chest-thumping as well as naysayers more carefully by explaining what it can reveal on the operations and what it cannot for reasons of national security.
Modi entered the scene quite late when he warned leaders in his party leaders not to thump their chests so loudly over the surgical attacks.
But it was too late by then.
The damage was already done.