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Friday, Aug 23, 2019

Balakot: The fallout will be political

Before Pulwama, the farm crisis and jobs dominated the narrative. It’s likely they will be important in the run-up to the polls, but they will have to share the space with security and the war against terror

columns Updated: Mar 04, 2019 12:58 IST
Hindustan Times
National Akali Dal members shout anti-Pakistan slogans, New Delhi, February 26, 2019
National Akali Dal members shout anti-Pakistan slogans, New Delhi, February 26, 2019(AFP)

The motivations behind India’s decision to strike a Jaish-e-Mohammed training facility inside Pakistan may not have been political. Irrespective of all else, India’s decision to use aircraft for a strike inside Pakistan’s territory has changed a few things.

For one, it is a reinforcement of the position that the surgical strike India carried out in 2016, following the terror strike in Uri, was not a one-off and that India will respond to terror strikes by hitting back — not at Pakistan, but at terror. The message in this was that India would respond not just through diplomatic efforts to apply pressure on Pakistan, but also militarily. That may or may not change the outlook of terror groups such as Jaish, but Pakistan now knows that there will be a price to be paid every time a terror outfit fostered and hosted on its soil launches an attack against India, without or without its approval.

For another, it is a clear signal that the status quo – India will not strike against terrorist facilities in Pakistan because the latter is a nuclear power, which immediately rules out all conventional options – has been broken and that India has established beyond doubt that it is possible to effect a conventional strike (and that the country’s political leadership is willing to do so).

It is not clear whether either will make Pakistan change its view regarding terror groups such as Jaish. There’s enough evidence of the involvement of Jaish and Lashkar-e-Taiba in terror attacks in India. International bodies such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) have censured Pakistan for not doing so, and also threatened action against it (the country is on the FATF grey list and may end up on the black). Several times in the past decade itself, Pakistan had the opportunity to act against these groups — and, each time, it has consciously chosen not to. It has another opportunity now — India has handed over a dossier listing the evidence against Jaish.

None of the subsequent events — Pakistan’s response; India’s response to that, the shooting down and capture of an Indian pilot, the downing of a PAF F-16, the escalation and de-escalation — changes anything.

Still, while the motivations behind India’s decision might not have been political, the fallout will be.

Issues such as the farm crisis and jobs that dominated the narrative ahead of the Pulwama terror attack by Jaish to which India responded with an air strike, have receded into the background. It is likely they will become more important in the run-up to the election, but they will have to share the space with national security and the war against terror. This will obviously benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — as early as on Friday, in an election rally in Tamil Nadu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticised the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for not doing anything after the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, highlighting his own government’s contrasting response to Pulwama. His pitch was clear: when things go bad, India needs a strong and decisive leader who can take tough calls.

Indeed, soon after Pulwama, the mood across India, including in the hinterland, was one of anger. The demand was for instant retribution.

If the headlines of the Hindi and other regional language newspapers (and the Hindi and regional language news channels) are anything to go by, and these are usually a good indicator of how Bharat (as opposed to India) is thinking, the BJP has already scored on the national security front according to the prevailing narrative: it dealt a blow to Jaish (or, at the least, clearly proved its ability to do so); one of its fighter jets, an old MiG, brought down a fancied F-16 of the Pakistan Air Force; and Pakistan agreed to release the downed Indian pilot within a day-and-half of his capture.

The Hindi heartland, where the BJP looked set to lose some ground, is where the party could reap the benefits of this.

The government also has enough to talk about on the diplomatic front, including the support it has secured from most Western nations in listing and sanctioning Jaish founder Masood Azhar in the UN.

The Opposition has managed to score some points by showing that the script didn’t entirely play out the way the government thought it would. While India was ready for it, the expectation was that Pakistan, crippled financially, and hemmed in diplomatically, would not respond. That proved a miscalculation (and as enough analysts have pointed out with the benefit of hindsight, no country can stand by and watch its territorial boundaries breached without reacting). Like Prime Minister Modi, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan (and the army behind him) has a domestic constituency to address. This is a slightly nuanced point, though, and in belabouring to explain it, the Opposition could come off as anti-India or seem critical of the armed forces. Importantly, the appeal of this argument, even if it is well made, is restricted to a tiny sliver of the population.

First Published: Mar 02, 2019 18:11 IST

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