BJP president Amit Shah's claim of IAF air strikes in Balakot killing "250 terrorists" has boomeranged to bite him and the party as the Opposition has now mounted pressure on the central government to produce proof the casualties caused in the covert operation conducted in the wee hours of 26 February.
"After the Pulwama attack, when everyone thought surgical strike can't be done this time… Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led central government undertook an air strike... and killed more than 250 terrorists without any harm to our side,” Shah had said while speaking at a public event in Gujarat on Sunday.
Shah went on to slam the Opposition for questioning the success of air strikes saying that their remarks have “brought smile on the face of Pakistan". Congratulating Modi on the strikes, Shah had said that the prime minister was the one leader who first conducted the surgical strikes in Pakistan in 2016 and has now again shown his "zero tolerance for terror" by ordering air strikes on terror targets and militant hubs in the neighbouring country.
However, it was the number of dead Shah quoted, which created a stir among the Opposition leaders as they scrambled to launch an attack on the Modi government for "misleading" the people on the damage caused by the air strikes and "inflating" the numbers despite no official confirmation from the defence ministry or the Indian Air Force. Some even called out BJP for falsifying the statement of IAF, which has refused to put a number to the casualties caused.
On Monday, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa had said that the Indian Air Force was not in a position to clarify how many people were inside (the target). "We don’t count human casualties. We count what targets have been hit, or not hit,” he had said.
Adding that the number of people killed depends on how many of them were present in the targets hit, Dhanoa had put the ball in the government's court to ascertain the final number of terrorists killed.
Thereafter, other BJP leaders, including defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, refused to say anything on the casualties of the air strikes and instead urged the Opposition to trust the armed forces.
Sitharaman had said that the IAF air strike on Balakot, which destroyed a JeM camp in Pakistan last week, was "not a military action" as there was no damage to civilians. She further said that Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had not given any casualty figure in the airstrike and had only given a statement, which, she said was the government's "position" on the matter.
On 26 February, the day of the IAF strikes in Balakot, Gokhale had said that a"very large number" of terrorists, trainers and senior commanders were killed in the "non-military" and "pre-emptive strike" on a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training camp.
Gokhale had made the claims in a press briefing, conducted jointly with MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar.
Meanwhile, Home Minister Rajnath Singh also refused to give out the number of terrorists eliminated in the strikes and instead took a dig on the Opposition leaders saying, "Some leaders of other political parties are asking how many terrorists were killed in the IAF strike. Today or tomorrow, it will be known. Pakistan and their leaders' heart know how many were killed."
Mocking the Opposition for latching on the question of casualties, Singh said, "Kitne mare, kitne mare (how many died)? Should our Air Force go and count the bodies after the attack — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5...? What is this joke?"
"If my Congress friends feel that the numbers should be informed to them, then I would like to say that if you want to go to Pakistan, then go, count and ask people there that how many were killed by our Air Force jawans," Singh remarked.
However, apart from attacking the Opposition over their repeated questioning on the success of the strikes, Singh claimed that the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) system had informed about the presence of around 300 active mobile phones at the site before the air strikes by India.
"The NTRO, which has an authentic system, said that 300 mobile phones were active (at the Balakot site). Were these mobile phones used by the trees? Now, will you (Opposition) not believe the NTRO also?" Singh asked while addressing a public meeting in Assam.
But, the damage was already done by Shah's claims of "250 terrorists killed" in the IAF air strike. Meanwhile, the Opposition has criticised the Centre by calling it a "liar".
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, BSP supremo Mayawati and Congress leader Kapil Sibal also jumped in the bandwagon to corner the government over the burning issue. Mayawati, who has recently joined social media, tweeted: “BJP chief Amit Shah is arduously making claims that IAF strike had killed over 250 terrorists in Pakistan but why is his guru PM Modi who is always keen to take credit for everything is silent over it? Terrorists killed is good news, but what is the secret behind deep silence of PM over it?” she asked in her tweet.
Former finance minister P Chidambaram also questioned Shah's claims and the subsequent silence of the government over it. Chidambaram said he was ready to believe the government’s claims but, if the Centre wanted the world to believe the impact of the air strikes on terror camps in Pakistan, then the government should not “indulge in Opposition-bashing”.
He also questioned how the figure of 300-350 casualties is circulating despite the air force chief declining to comment on the number of casualties.
TMC’s Derek O’Brien even accused Shah and Modi of sending the soldiers to die without a plan.
“Is your purpose only to win the election,” he asked.
Referring to Shah’s speech where he had said that the sacrifices of the forces will not go in vain because BJP was in power at the Centre, O’Brien said that the armed forces have been reduced to “the private property of a political party”.
In the wake up these attacks, BJP leaders rushed to damage control, with all of them downplaying Shah's remark and refusing to spell out any number. Senior leader and Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in a press conference, “Look, I am not giving you any number as the death toll on behalf of the government. How powerful the strike was — you have seen the reports on the number of mobiles that were intercepted, I have already told you four buildings were damaged. The Indian armed forces have crossed PoK and went into Pakistan and returned in 20-25 minutes after massive strikes without even getting a scratch, that itself is a huge success,” he said.
When asked about Shah’s remark, Prasad said: “The Air Force has said the government would say. What the party president said must have been an estimation. The number could go higher also… We are not speculating on it. The important thing is that it was an effective strike, the damage that should have happened has happened.”
However, despite these efforts, it was not enough to save the government's face as another BJP minister on Wednesday threw around a figure of "40o terrorists killed" in air strikes. Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh reportedly said: “This time they killed 40 people (Pulwama attack) and the Prime Minister said the armed forces were given a free hand. Our armed forces went into Pakistan and killed 400."
In the midst of this, former chief of army staff and BJP MLA General VK Singh defended Shah, saying that his remark was an "estimate". "That (casualty figure) was based on people who were housed in the buildings which were hit, it’s an estimate. He is not saying this is a confirmed figure, he is saying this many might have died," Singh said when asked about Shah’s claim.
According to a report by The Indian Express, BJP spokespersons and leaders have been advised not to specify the number of terrorists killed in the Balakot air strike to the media and in public speeches.
Earlier, Modi had accused the Opposition of demoralising the armed forces by “raising doubts” and “asking for proof” of the Balakot air strike. “While we are out to counter terrorism across the border... some people in the country... instead of boosting the morale of our forces, are speaking in a language which is lighting up the faces of our enemies,” Modi had said in his public address at BJP's ‘Sankalp Rally’ in Patna.
Meanwhile, Shah despite the gaffe and the subsequent drubbing continued to rave about the success of Modi government on all fronts, including a diplomatic victory as he said on Tuesday that earlier "Pakistan used to return beheaded bodies of Indian jawans, but now it had to release a captured Indian Air Force pilot within 48 hours," referring to Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman who was released after being held captive and spending nearly 60 hours in Pakistani territory.
"See the change now. Within 48 hours, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was released and he is among us," Shah said while addressing a party workers' meeting in Jharkhand.
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Updated Date: Mar 06, 2019 19:28:48 IST