Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
It would not be necessary to state the obvious: India has overwhelming military superiority over Pakistan in terms of numbers, fire-power and technological superiority. The dedication of the Indian armed forces is to a constitutional democracy. Indian soldiers are not fired by ideological zeal but by their commitment to the multi-religious and multi-cultural Indian nation-state. The heroism and sacrifices of the Indian men and women in uniform cannot be appropriated by any section of society and polity, not by the majority nor by the minority.
That is why, Indian armed forces, despite their human failings as in the operations that the army is forced to carry out against insurgencies, commands respect and admiration of the people of India. The commandos who carried out the September 2016 surgical strike or the Mirage 2000 pilots who bombed the terrorists’ camp in Balakot have displayed extraordinary courage and competence. It would be wrong to ask whether these brave men and women have ended the scourge of terrorism. Terrorism is a wider issue with political and ideological ramifications, and armies can root it out when the political and ideological aspect is taken care of. And this applies to the most powerful armies like that the United States, Russia, China and India.
There are also many alternatives to fight terrorists through physical force. India has been handling terrorism since the time of the rise of militancy in Punjab in the 1980s and in Jammu and Kashmir in the 1990s. The extremism in the Punjab had been contained, and it has been raising its head every time it has been brought under control in J&K. The fight has to continue even as other ways have to be found to deal with it at the political level.
The question that comes up in the context of the Pulwama terror attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) on February 12 and India bombing the JeM training camp at Balakot in Pakistan on February 26 is its impact on the April-May Lok Sabha election.
It is true on the face of it that Pulwama attack had happened in the run-up to the election, and there was no option for the government of the day to strike back at the JeM, which had claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack. Prime Minister Narendra Modi can rightly take credit that he had acted decisively based on the advise and assessment of the security and intelligence forces, and he can also argue that prime minister Manmohan Singh government did not respond in the way he did after the November 26, 2008, terror attack on Mumbai, and nor did prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government after the attack on the Parliament on December 13, 2001.
Modi can claim that he is a more aggressive prime minister compared to Singh and Vajpayee. The Mumbai terror attack in November 2008 was months away from April-May 2009 Lok Sabha election. And that election was won on basis of the sober image of Singh, and the Congress had surprisingly won 21 seats in Uttar Pradesh. It is probable that Modi’s decision to bomb the JeM camp at Balakot might win him the election this summer even as Singh’s restraint won him the election in 2009. These are imponderables and it is futile to find irrefutable connection between terrorist attacks and election results.
Critics of Modi would be wrong in denying him the credit for deciding on the counter-terrorism attacks. And it is foolish to argue that the counter-terrorism attacks do not solve the problem of terrorism. Terrorism is to be fought on the ground with guns and planes even as one fights it at the ideological, political and diplomatic levels. The problem is not with Modi’s military response, nor is his belligerence at fault.
The moral and political question is whether Modi and the BJP are going to use the Pulwama attack and the retaliatory bombing of Balakot as the basis for his election campaign? If they do so, and it is even natural to do so, then the next question that comes up is whether Modi needed a war to win an election. Modi and others in the BJP will retort that it was the JeM which had carried out the terror attack in the run up to the election, and that the Modi government responded in the only way that a government in the situation had to: through the aerial strike at Balakot, the training camp of the JeM. And that it was not their intention to fall back on the ‘war’ against terrorism to win the election.
On the morning of February 28, addressing a videoconference of booth workers of the BJP at 5,000 venues, Modi was seen emphasising the economic achievements of his government between 2014 and 2019, and he referred to the tension on India-Pakistan border in passing. He told a booth worker from Hapur that the 2014-2019 term was engaged in meeting the ‘aavasyakataaein (necessities)’ of the people, and that the next term will be engaged in meeting the ‘aakaankshaaein (desires)’ of the people.
The strategy is clear. Now that the patriotic sentiments have been aroused through the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot counter-attack by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and even because of the capture of the IAF fighter pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, by Pakistan. it seems that Modi is assured that he does not have to emphasise the issue any more and that the sentiment of the voter has been suitably triggered and on the voting day, people will lean towards the BJP. This is the assumption. And if the Opposition parties were to criticise the government on the Pulwama terrorist attack, they can be labelled as ‘anti-national’. He knows as a good propagandist that the Pulwama-Balakot episode will remain fresh in the mind of the electorate and that it would influence the voter’s choice more than anything else. He has more than one arrow in his bow. Patriotic fervour is one of them along with that of economic development and welfare measures. Though on the ground the latter have not been delivered. It falls to the people to scrutinise the record of the Modi government on development, on welfare measures and on India’s military response. Modi and the BJP would not like to be scrutinised on any of these issues because the record is not too impressive. Pulwama-Balakot have dominated the headlines for two weeks and it has been the focus of the nation’s attention. His address to the BJP booth workers on the morning of February 28 showed that Modi is looking ahead to the elections, and he has displayed a calculated nonchalance towards the faceoff with Pakistan and he is confident that it will play an important emotional part in the voter’s mind. But he does not want to overplay the patriotism card for fear that he will be labelled a war-monger in any way. The aerial attack on Balakot in response to the Pulwama terror attack is to declare in a loud and clear fashion his brand of muscular nationalism. The capture of the IAF pilot and the shooting down of the Mig21 showed that everything did not go according to plan, and there was the clear danger of things getting out of control. But the Indian government played the game with caution when Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale described the attack on Balakot as ‘a non-military pre-emptive attack’. If India had declared this to be a military attack, then Pakistan would have had no choice but to respond militarily and it would have led to a moment of conventional war. The Indian description of the Balakot has provided Pakistan an escape route as well. The intrusion of Pakistan’s war plane into Jammu and Kashmir across the Line of Control (LoC) is nothing more than a face-saver for Pakistan. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s televised address made it clear that it was just a statement of Pakistan’s capability to respond and it was not intended to be an act of war.
The Pulwama terror attack has proved to be a windfall for Modi as he was preparing to fight an election with nothing more to show than a few welfare measures and lackadaisical economic growth rate in the last five years. Though Modi and BJP president Amit Shah had gone belligerent on Pulwama and indulged in sabre rattling, the party’s tone turned subdued and restrained after the aerial attack on Balakot. The party and Modi seem to have realised that it would not do to indulge in war rhetoric. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s cavalier statement that if the United States’ Navy Seals could take away and kill Osama bin Laden, the reputed brain behind the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York and Washington, why cannot India do the same, seemed out of place in the light of the subdued statements of Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar denying the opposition charge that the BJP was politicising the Pulwama-Balakot episode, and which was also reflected in Modi’s address to the party workers a day later. Basically, the BJP is backing off. It appears that Modi has realised that his purpose is served by the limited aerial attack on Balakot and there is no need to step up the hostilities because as his Pakistan counterpart Khan had pointed out that once war begins neither he nor Modi has control over how the war plays out. Khan was once again playing the game of nuclear blackmail. The Balakot aerial attack was supposed to call the Pakistan bluff on the apocalyptic nuclear flare-up. India and Pakistan have once again checkmated each other. Modi and the BJP have gained a limited advantage which might be sufficient to tilt the electoral verdict in their favour.