The Opposition ridiculed Modi for politicising soldiers’ sacrifices, but he oversaw a perfect air strike & is now getting his pilot back
Karnataka BJP chief BS Yeddyurappa clearly goofed when he said that, after the Pakistan strike, prime minister Narendra Modi’s popularity was so high, the party would win at least 22 of the state’s 28 Lok Sabha seats, and it didn’t help that the pictures of CRPF jawans—killed in the Pulwama attack by the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM)—formed the backdrop to Modi’s address at Churu after the successful air-strike at JeM training camps in the heart of Pakistan. Even so, the Congress party’s condemnation of Modi—along with 20 other Opposition parties—for “blatant politicisation of the sacrifices made by our armed forces” always looked churlish; coinciding with this Opposition onslaught, various WhatsApp videos surfaced of servicemen’s wives asking Modi to, yes, not politicise the sacrifices of soldiers!
Apart from condemning the prime minister during a major crisis being in bad taste, the Opposition parties praising the Air Force for responding so well to the JeM attack, but criticising Modi, never made sense. How did they think the Air Force retaliated without Modi giving them the go-ahead, a go-ahead they never got after heinous Pakistani terror attacks during the UPA rule? The Opposition, however, got some traction since, after Pakistan retaliated, and captured Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, many started wondering about where this would end; more so, after Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan’s statement about the possibility of the script spiralling out of control, and in a situation where both countries had nuclear weapons.
The Congress taunting Modi by asking him where Abhinandan was—and when he would come home—has been blunted by the Pakistanis announcing that they would be releasing him, but the more serious question the Opposition needs to answer is what did they want Modi to do since it is clear the old policy of ‘strategic restraint’ wasn’t working. As many as 1,467 people were killed in terrorist violence across the country in 2014-17, and 2,703 in the four years before that; and keep in mind that the latest attacks include something as brazen as infiltrating into army and paramilitary camps such as in Handwara, Nagrota and Sunjuwan. So, if ‘strategic restraint’ didn’t work, what was Modi to do?
In the event, Modi’s instinctive reaction was to shake things up, but with meticulous planning. The operation to strike major JeM training camps with 250-300 terrorists in Balakot involved the use of aircraft from multiple bases, including a mid-flight re-fuelling aircraft and a surveillance drone, apart from 12 Mirage 2000s; as an added gift, an outdated MiG flown by Abhinandan also downed a more modern Pakistani F-16. By upping the ante so much—finance minister Arun Jaitley even spoke of India having the ability to carry out an Osama-type operation deep in the heart of Pakistan like the US did—Modi made it clear the costs for Pakistan would no longer be as minimal as in the past.
And, if the operation itself was executed so well, the diplomatic offensive prior to the strike, and after it, has been equally impressive. While China, which has traditionally backed Pakistan on JeM chief Masood Azhar, was forced to sign off on a UN Security Council (UNSC) statement condemning the attack, and the US/UK/France have made yet another attempt to get the UNSC to label Azhar a ‘global terrorist’; while China may, once again, scuttle the move, it says a lot that the pressure is being maintained by the global community; it is unlikely Abhinandan would have been released so soon without this global pressure.
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged both countries to de-escalate but while underscoring the “urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil”. And, after his summit with North Korea ended, president Trump reiterated the US position when, instead of condemning India, he said “We have reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India” and that he hoped the hostilities would end soon; a few days before the strike, he had said India was planning “something very strong”, once again indicating it had US support. And while the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned India’s strike, it has not withdrawn its invitation to foreign minister Sushma Swaraj at its next session, so much so that Pakistan—a founding member of the OIC—may boycott the meeting.
An Opposition so blinded by hatred for Modi, however, saw none of this, took no pride in what the country had achieved. While the Opposition’s sniping, and, indeed, its attempt to scuttle the Rafale purchase despite the huge delays in procurement—even as the Air Force’s fleet kept dwindling—suggest that it, and not Modi, is guilty of playing politics, India’s real challenge begins now.
Getting Abhinandan back is undoubtedly a victory, but not one India had thought would be necessary since it may not have envisaged its pilot getting shot down in enemy territory. The real goal was to deal a crippling blow to Pakistan’s terror infrastructure, if not eliminate it altogether. The fact that Pakistan is returning Abhinandan—as a “gesture of peace”—shows Modi’s tactics have worked, and that Pakistan may take longer than it has in the past to return to waging its proxy war through terrorists. But the terror network is far from being dismantled, and it is not clear that, with Pakistan looking as if it is trying to dampen hostilities, the global community will allow India to continue to target JeM or other terrorist facilities. To that extent, returning Wing Commander Abhinandan is a masterstroke by the Pakistani military establishment, and Modi’s challenge is to ensure he is able to sustain the momentum he has managed to achieve so far.
It is, of course, unfortunate that the Opposition is not with him in this endeavour, though that may change once the elections are over—right now, no one wants to concede anything since, at least till the Pakistani misadventure, most predicted the elections would be a lot closer than imagined in May 2014.
Postscript: Since WhatsApp forwards dominate the discourse nowadays, it is fitting to quote from one of them to end this column: “India: We’ve isolated Pakistan internationally. Pakistan: We’ve isolated Modi domestically with the help of 21 political parties”.