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Fog of war: Will voters see through Modi spin?

At the core of Prime Minister Modi’s boastfulness about surgical strikes “on the ground, in the sky and in outer space” is his need to reinforce the idea of an enemy laying permanent siege to the nation. Pakistan fills the role of the external enemy and India’s Muslim minority the role of its secret supporters within. However, recent events appear to be unravelling Modi’s re-election campaign so carefully crafted around the idea of “teaching Pakistan a lesson”.  

If initially, the Modi government could successfully shut down critics of the air strike by claiming that questioning the veracity of its claims would destroy the morale of the armed forces, those questions can no longer be avoided. 

Even after a month since the air strikes, the Modi government has not been able to provide convincing details of the number of terrorists that it allegedly killed in Balakot. The Indian Air Force has washed its hands off the matter by saying that its job is to hit designated targets and not count the bodies. Only the BJP president Amit Shah has claimed 250 terrorists were killed. Other numbers of 300 to 350 dead remain unsourced. Pakistan has repeatedly claimed that there were no casualties, citing lack of evidence for evacuation and burial of the dead. 

To add insult to injury almost a month after the incident, the IAF has ordered an inquiry to ascertain whether its own Mi17 helicopter was “accidentally” brought down by its own Air Defence System over Budgam on Feb 27, mistaking it for enemy aircraft. 

Meanwhile, there are reports in the independent media that Wing Commander Abhinanadan Varthaman did not shoot down an F-16 fighter jet of Pakistan, as claimed by India, before he was taken prisoner. There are alternative versions of how Wing Commander Varthaman came to bail out over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

According to one version he was asked to turn back but he could not respond to the command because of radio jamming by Pakistan. There are also suggestions that Wing Commander Varthaman was not shot down but had to abandon his aircraft because he ran out of fuel.

Further, some sources suggest that since the weapons on the crashed MiG seem to be intact, perhaps he did not any missile. Nor, was he hit by one, they suggest, as the picture of the crashed MiG21 show both the wings and the fuselage intact. Given the possibility of alternative scenarios to what the government had claimed, the Air Force should also initiate investigation into the Mig21 crash. 

The public may legitimately ask who bore the real brunt of the air attack if it were to turn out that India did not shoot down a Pakistani F-16 and lost not only an Indian fighter jet, got its pilot captured, and further shot down its own helicopter killing six of its own air force officers and one civilian on the ground. This will be especially galling because Pakistan struck at half a dozen sites within India in retaliation for Balakot without any loss of personnel. 

If it were only a matter of signalling to Pakistan that a doctrinal shift had occurred in India’s potential response to terrorism sponsored by it, then why beguile the Indian voter by tales of war, bravery and deaths inflicted in Pakistan?

The efficacy of the Balakot bombing in deterring militants in Kashmir is a moot question after yet another attempt on military forces on March 30 near Banihal on the National Highway. Apprehensions of further attacks have caused the government to ban civilian traffic on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway between Baramulla to Udhampur on every Sunday and Wednesday till May 31. Such restrictions denying ordinary citizens access to hospitals, schools and workplaces were not imposed by previous governments even in the worst phase of Kashmir militancy.

The slippage in the BJP narrative from Pakistan to the Kashmiris and the Muslim enemy within is smooth and dangerous.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent campaign speeches show him deliberately moving into the communal mode. At Wardha, he suggested that the alienation of the Congress from the majority Hindu community was such that Rahul Gandhi was forced to contest from Wayanad in Kerala, a constituency dominated by the minority community. The prime minister also claimed that no Hindu could ever be a terrorist, ignoring the existence of the first Hindutva terrorist of Independent India, Nathuram Godse, and more recently the life sentences awarded in the Ajmer Sharif bomb blasts to two Hindutva terrorists in 2017.

Later in a rally in Saharanpur, he tapped into communal fears of women being abducted by the other community and obviously recalling the “love jehad” accusations that started the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013. He assured the listeners that his party stands for “beti-beti” (protecting the “honour of daughters”). “They”, he said, believe in “boti-boti” (cutting into pieces), a reference to the Congress candidate Imran Masood who had been jailed in 2014 for threatening Prime Minister Modi with violence in the aftermath of the communal riots in Western Uttar Pradesh. 

Prime Minister Modi is clearly scraping the bottom of barrel by flogging the communal narrative back to life that he, as a former RSS pracharak, knows how to do almost instinctively.

Contrast this to his maiden Independence Day speech as Prime Minister where he called for a ten year moratorium on communalism: “I appeal to all those people that whether it is the poison of casteism, communalism, regionalism, discrimination on social and economic basis, all these are obstacles in our way forward. Let's resolve for once in our hearts, let's put a moratorium on all such activities for ten years, we shall march ahead to a society which will be free from all such tensions.”

Then flush with victory, the man who urged everyone to “shun all the sins committed so far” is now unable to resist the lure of polarising India along communal lines as he once again faces the electorate with an appalling record of governance behind him.

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