Airstrikes not political fodder, stop divisiveness

This summer will be unusually hot. The rising temperature from what still is only the early round of campaigning is already becoming too much to bear. We’ve seen bickering and bitterness before, but all boundaries are being crossed this time. The most unfortunate and dangerous fallout is the dragging of the armed forces into the political slugfest. The manner in which the debate over the Indian air strikes across the border, the detention and subsequent release by Pakistan of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and the way the claims and counter claims between India and Pakistan have unfolded is worrying to say the least.

We have an official account of what transpired in the non-military pre-emptive action launched by India on Feb. 26. The Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale has been careful in placing only limited facts on record. He said, “In an intelligence-led operation, India struck the biggest training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated. This facility at Balakot was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar (alias Ustad Ghouri), the brother-in-law of Masood Azhar, the chief of JeM.”

Serving political ends

Now, we have heard many spinoffs and variants of what actually happened on the ground. None of them are official accounts but they have served to create confusion and serve political ends. In this unfortunate game, the numbers of the terrorists reportedly killed on the Pakistani side are usually and conveniently rounded off to the next 50. Thus, we have heard over the past week depending on who is speaking or reporting and on what occasion that 200 to 300 terrorists were killed in the pre-emptive strikes launched by India in response to the gruesome suicide bombing of CRPF personnel in Pulwama. The 300 number has been reported by some media outlets, including Reuters, and attributed to an unnamed government official. Reuters also added this counter-quote of a local driver to their account of what happened on the ground in Pakistan: “No one died. Only some pine trees died; they were cut down. A crow also died.”

The BJP is already under fire for using the strikes to score political points. The BJP President and the Prime Minister are both not averse to making this an election issue. Talking of this specific issue and the intelligence response to it is very different from talking in general of the security of the nation and the political positions of the BJP on the issue of terrorism or the handling of the situation in J & K.  The specific and the general are being happily and deliberately mixed up to pull support.

Minister of State S.S. Ahluwalia was right when he said over the weekend that no official count of the number of people eliminated has been cited by anyone on the record. Strictly speaking, that is correct. But that statement of Ahluwalia didn’t hold for long. Soon enough, and as if to counter that statement, the BJP President Amit Shah has claimed that the strikes killed 250 terrorists. The Opposition parties are not to be left behind and are seeking evidence of the damage that has been claimed to be inflicted on the Pakistani side.

Race to the bottom

The genuineness or otherwise of these claims apart, and the propriety of discussing a serious policy action with deep ramifications in so frivolous a manner apart, these statements draw the armed forces into needless controversies. In the thick of what will be a bitterly fought election, this kind of tempo is prone to sliding down to the very bottom and causing deep harm to the nation, to India’s preparedness in the fight against terror and the way the nation is perceived and the support it receives in its diplomatic endeavours. Air strikes undertaken at great risk to the Indian side are not a tool to aid the election campaign of any political party.

The BJP is already under fire for using the strikes to score political points. The BJP President and the Prime Minister are both not averse to making this an election issue. Talking of this specific issue and the intelligence response to it is very different from talking in general of the security of the nation and the political positions of the BJP on the issue of terrorism or the handling of the situation in J & K.  The specific and the general are being happily and deliberately mixed up to pull support. This is disingenuous and forces a political divide on an issue where there is none.

The BJP can take the issue of security to the polls. But all political parties must be brought on board with the clear understanding that the cross border strikes will not be discussed, that soldiers who died in battle will not become the subject of ugly political bickering and that all sides will agree on some basics that they can reiterate from their respective platforms.

Added to it are voices like that of the BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa, who has also claimed many Pakistani terrorists were killed and gave credit to Narendra Modi for the safe return of Wing Commander Varthaman. He even counted the seats that all this would help the BJP win in Karnataka. In Delhi, local BJP leader Manoj Tewari wore army fatigues to an election rally in a brazen and naked attempt to cash in on the border tensions. The signals are clear. Party workers will take these messages to thousands of smaller rallies and a myriad of political activities as the campaign picks up.

Agree on some basics

But the “activation” has been so blunt that voters are bound to see through the gimmick. The BJP will run the risk of losing the initial electoral high it thought it could drive because of the air strikes. The opposition has been steadfast and has raised some simple but important questions. If the BJP tries to sell the idea of the damage it inflicted on the terrorists, then the opposition will be drawn to ask for proof of the damage. If the death of terrorists in an air strike is political fodder, then the Opposition cannot be blamed for asking for the source of that information. This blatant politicisation of a dangerous conflict has to stop forthwith.

The BJP can take the issue of security to the polls. But all political parties must be brought on board with the clear understanding that the cross border strikes will not be discussed, that soldiers who died in battle will not become the subject of ugly political bickering and that all sides will agree on some basics that they can reiterate from their respective platforms.

To that end, political parties must be offered an off-the-record briefing from the highest civilian and military levels on the issue. They must all agree not to discuss the specifics in election rallies. The one statement that all parties can and must agree on and repeat is simple, clear and clean: it is that the nation stands as one in the fight against terror. What is missing from our political leadership today is that one line that said it well in Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s statement issued on Dec. 3, 1971, at the time of the Bangladesh conflict:  “In (our) resolve, the government is assured of the full and unflinching support of all political parties and every Indian citizen.”

(The author is a journalist and  faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)