On 26 February, India woke up to the news of the air force bombing Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist training camps in Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. From saluting the Indian Air Force pilots who carried out the operation to calling it a "befitting reply" to Pakistan's violent orchestrations in Kashmir, leaders from across the political spectrum hailed what was dubbed as "surgical strikes 2.0". But it didn't take long for them to pull a 180.
In the hours after the Ministry of External Affairs confirmed the air strikes in Balakot — though without revealing the extent of the damage inflicted and restricting the figure on casualties to "a very large number" — reports in foreign media contradicted the information doing the rounds in India. They questioned whether any terrorist camp was targeted in the first place, in a way backing Pakistan's claims that a hillside forest was hit with no casualties.
"We saw fallen trees and one damaged house, and four craters where the bombs had fallen," Reuters quoted a villager from near Jaba Top — the site of the air strikes — as saying. In another report, Reuters quoted a number of villagers as saying that only one local resident "was hurt by something or hit by some window".
The New York Times quoted Rahul Bedi, an analyst at the London-based Jane's Information Group that tracks the defense industry, as saying: "What they hit is speculation for now — they say they hit a terrorist camp, but a lot of intelligence sources say those camps in Pakistan had been cleaned out in recent days. This is more political symbolism than anything else. Modi had to show some demonstrable action on India's part, ahead of elections."
As is the case in most such incidents, speculation and contradictory reports will continue to emerge till authorities present their version of the event with proof. But Opposition parties caught on to these reports raising doubts about the authenticity of the Indian government's claims and are now demanding proof of the air force mission.
"After the air strikes, we were told there were 300 deaths, 350 deaths. But I read reports in The New York Times and Washington Post that said no human was killed. Another foreign media report said only one person was injured... The people of this country want to know how many were killed (at Balakot), where the bombs were actually dropped and whether they were dropped on the target," West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said, though she clarified that she did not "want politics over the blood of jawans".
On Monday, Congress leader Kapil Sibal tweeted a list of foreign publications that had reported on "no proof of militant losses at Balakot", questioning Prime Minister Narendra Modi whether he was "guilty of politicising terror".
In response to demands for proof of the IAF air strikes, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said "no security agencies ever share operational details". Modi himself has accused the Opposition of demoralising security forces by casting doubts on the operation, saying: "In their fixation with criticising Modi, they are opposing the country and comprising its interests."
The politically charged environment in India today is clashing with the wave of nationalism triggered by the JeM's suicide attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama, fuelled by the now-debated IAF air strikes. But if we look at how India and Pakistan were nearly at the brink of a war last week, with cross-border tensions worse than in years, is colouring the defence action in political light the right way to go?
Pollsters believe the BJP is likely to benefit from the Balakot operation, a possibility of which the Opposition is well aware, no matter how many times it clarifies that it is not questioning the defence forces (as it seemed to after the 2016 surgical strikes). But leaders in the NDA cashing in on the air strikes in the context of the approaching elections is not helping matters in any way.
BJP president Amit Shah, on Sunday, said Opposition parties were bringing "a smile on Pakistan's face" by questioning the courage of the armed forces. Shah used the occasion of an election campaign rally to say that "more than 250 terrorists were killed" in the air strikes — a figure no government representative has revealed yet — and in the same breath, he accused Congress president Rahul Gandhi of politicising the military operation. The irony is not lost here.
It wasn't long after news of the Balakot operation broke that Karnataka BJP president BS Yeddyurappa said the mission would tilt things in Modi's favour and help the party win 22 Lok Sabha seats in the state in the upcoming elections. He tried to clarify his statement later, but the damage was done.
Similarly, Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan said at the NDA's Sankalp Rally in Patna, which even Modi addressed, that "the way we won the battle of bullets, we will also win the battle of ballots in the Lok Sabha polls". Another political reference to the IAF air strikes.
In fact, Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took it to another level, by saying: "If we do not bring Modi sarkar back to power in India and Assam again, the Pakistan Army or terrorists will probably come and attack the Indian Parliament and Assam Assembly, and the prime minister will not have the courage to retaliate."
Jaitley may dismiss suggestions that the military action against Pakistan had anything to do with politics ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, but his own NDA colleagues are betraying the ill-concealed agenda.
To say that the situation between India and Pakistan is delicate at the moment would be an understatement. After Pakistan returned IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman on Friday "as a goodwill gesture", it said the ball was now in India's court to de-escalate the tensions, though the Pakistani army chief told top military leaders of the United States, Britain and Australia that they would "surely respond to any aggression in self-defence".
Similarly, the Indian Army chief has also asked soldiers to remain vigilant to "counter the nefarious designs of the enemy and anti-national elements", indicating that the neighbours are far from being free of the threat of the situation spiraling into a war.
India-Pakistan hostilities need delicate handling, and adding political colour to the sensitive situation is not what the country needs right now. This is precisely what families of soldiers have been reminding the public of amid the warmongering that followed the Pulwama terror attack. It's easy to sit behind a phone or a desktop and cry "destroy Pakistan" and point fingers at the administration. But this is war we are talking about. The need of the hour is for both the ruling party and the Opposition to introspect and set aside their selfish motives in national interest. Careful thought and diplomacy need to pave the forward, not a political blame game.
"Stop politicising the army. It is as sacred as the State," Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu tweeted, summarising what the country needs (amid more political accusations directed at the BJP-led government).
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Updated Date: Mar 04, 2019 14:08:35 IST