In a democracy, there must be no redlines in the public sphere.
From issues of government functioning to national security, from the conduct of the armed forces to draconian laws, from the violence that often accompanies nation-building exercise to even existing territorial boundaries, we must be willing to open every conversation, listen to every perspective. That is a testament to the strength and resilience of a democracy.
And that is why when the government or loyal TV anchors say that there should be no questions asked about last Thursday’s ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of Control as it denotes disrespect for the armed forces, they are wrong.
But this does not mean that India’s opposition is right in asking for proof – more specifically, video footage – to show that the strikes indeed did take place.
The politics of strikes
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was the first off the block with a clever video message .
Careful not to alienate the nationalist constituency, and in recognition of the admiration the Modi government has evoked for its move, Kejriwal first lauded the strikes. But then he pointed to what he termed was Pakistani propaganda in denying the strikes. And he went on to suggest that it was important to counter this propaganda – and for this, the government must offer proof of the attacks.
The old 1956 Hindi song – Kahin pe nighein, kahin pe nishana – was playing out in one’s mind. Kejriwal may have couched it in nationalist terms and aimed at Pakistan, but his target was closer home – Modi. The gambit was obvious – sow doubts among people about the strikes, and force the government to show its hand clearly. The Congress too has followed up on the act.
But the original culprit here, in some ways, is the BJP apparatus. The opposition is desperate because the ruling party is out to appropriate the strikes as its achievement. Now, as the political executive that authorised the strike, and delivered on a campaign promise to send across a ‘tough message’ to Pakistan, it is inevitable that Modi will seek to use this politically. While he has been quiet and government has officially been responsible and circumspect, the BJP has gone overboard in cashing in on the ‘achievement’. Off-the-record briefings exaggerating the scale of the operation and the casualties have only added to the perception that the ruling party has scored an unprecedented victory. The opposition wants to deplete precisely this additional capital in the BJP bank.
But while the politics and the motives are understandable, the opposition’s demand is dangerous and self-defeating.
Here is why.
There is a reason the government has been deliberately ambiguous on the nature of the strikes. The BJP government – and India – has many other goals, besides dealing with terror emanating out of Pakistan. It knows that war rhetoric dents the India story in international investor circles, and distracts from the domestic focus on economic growth and governance.
It is well aware that India no longer enjoys massive conventional superiority over Pakistan, there is a nuclear context, and the long-term policy goal of changing the Pakistani state’s behaviour cannot be achieved through military means alone. In simpler terms, the government does not want war. And that is why, from the day it announced the strikes, it has been clear that for now, this is the end of any operations from the Indian side.
There may be some exaggeration in the narrative that has been informally put out about the operation – and some in government may be wary of the holes being picked. But that is not the real reason the footage has been held back. Those who have watched it, or know people who have watched it, believe that it offers damning proof of both the raid and identifies those who have suffered on the other side.
Till now, Pakistan has been claiming that there has been no raid, that this is all fiction. This is convenient for both sides. Islamabad is then under no pressure to immediately retaliate; India meets its objective of having sent a message across, but also de-escalated. If the footage is released, then there will be both clear proof of the raid and the nature of Pakistani losses. This will have immediate implications both within the Pakistani Army – where a chorus for action would emanate – and the public opinion on that side. This is something that India wants to avoid.
It is ironical that those Indian political constituencies and opinion-makers, who have generally been doves on Pakistan and have pushed peace, are today asking for proof of the attack. Be careful what you wish for; there will be unintended consequences.
This will not help politically either, for if the footage is released – and it proves that the action indeed happened – the opposition parties run the risk of being on the wrong side of public opinion. This will also strengthen Modi further, for the BJP will turn around to say they were right all along.
India and Pakistan are entering a new phase in their old conflict. Many challenges lie ahead. It is inevitable there will be another attack – this will then generate more pressure on India to respond. But till we get to that point, status quo – where Delhi has claimed it has sent a message through strikes, and Islamabad has claimed this is all a lie, and both sides are pretending to their base that nothing else needs to be done – is best. Instead of disturbing this fragile status quo, India’s opposition parties should find other ways to corner the government.
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