Prime Minister Modi has convinced most of the political class that he has turned the tragedy at Pulwama into a great military and diplomatic victory against Pakistan. As a result, many of those who are in politics only to line their pockets are seriously considering jumping on to the BJP boat even at this late hour. Do they not realise that everything Modi has done since February 14 is pure theatre – whose only purpose is to somehow win an election he was destined to lose because of the amateurish performance of his government, its scant respect for the rule of law and the coming together of the opposition?
In 2014, the BJP came to power because its vote share jumped 13 percentage points from 18% to 31%. This happened because a large part of the electorate, which had seen growth slacken sharply in 2011, believed his grandiose promise to bring back “acche din”. i.e revive economic growth, and create millions of jobs. Instead, all he has created in the past five years is a factory for the suppression or falsification of economic data.
What he has not been able to suppress or misrepresent is the near-complete absence of new jobs, the loss of 11 million jobs in industry, and further millions in construction, and the rise of the totally unemployed, to 6.2% of the workforce – the highest level in 45 years.
The spreading disillusionment had already been reflected in a string of defeats in recent assembly elections and bye-elections, Modi knew that the BJP could not possibly win on its own, so he turned to that “last refuge of the scoundrel”, patriotism. Pulwama gave him the opportunity he was looking for and he has taken full advantage of it – with a ruthlessness that is strongly reminiscent of his opportunism after the Gujarat riots of 2002.
The irony, which the big media won’t focus attention on, is that the government had received no fewer than three warnings from the Intelligence Bureau and a more detailed one from the Kashmir police warning of the threat of an imminent attack. The golden rule in intelligence analysis all over the world is that for a piece of information to be taken seriously it must be obtained from two independent sources. The pre-Pulwama warning passed the test.
The CRPF brass, presumably, took the threats seriously, and asked for its jawans to be transported by air instead of sending them by road. It may have also suggested this because heavy snowfall had forced a bunching up of two convoys and was certain to slow their movement to a crawl. But the fact remains that it made the request, and the request was denied.
Who had the power to deny such a request? In such an important matter, it is unlikely that the Ministry of Home Affairs would have declined on its own. What is more, had it actually done so, the air would have been full of recrimination and denials in the days that followed. But a full month later, there has been only silence. So it is beyond reasonable doubt that the request was denied by the PMO. And that means Modi. Why he would do that, only knows.
This is not the first time Modi has tried to turn mass death into political advantage. Modi was able to use the Godhra fire tragedy and the orchestrated massacres which followed to advance the Gujarat elections by four months, win it and remain the chief minister of Gujarat for the next 12 years. It would have been against his nature not to seize the ‘opportunity’ that the death of CRPF jawans would give him.
Everything that has happened since then has been excellently choreographed theatre. First, Modi promised a ‘surgical strike ‘ in retaliation. That took place 12 days later on February 26. Within hours of the IAF attack on Balakot in Pakistan, which the Indian foreign secretary said had wiped out a key Jaish-e-Mohammad training camp, BJP ministers put out the claim that 300 to 400 terrorists had been killed. Since then, satellite imagery and explosive analysis suggests that the madrassa at Balakot is not only standing, but might have suffered very little damage, and that any casualties would have been far fewer than the political claims being bandied about. The air force itself said it would be “premature” to say how many people had been killed in the airstrike.
Satellite imagery apart, the most credible evidence has come over the phone from what a student at the madrassa told NirupamaSubramaniam, the highly respected journalist who used to be correspondent of The Hindu in Islamabad and is now with the Indian Express. He said that a ‘huge’ bomb had fallen close to the madrassa, after which the army had hastily evacuated the students to safe locations elsewhere.
But one does not have to choose between conflicting second hand reports and satellite analysis to arrive at this conclusion. The clinching proof is not even Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s assertion that there had been no casualties, but in where he made it. For this was in Pakistan’s National Assembly. Since Balakot is in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, is it credible that an MNA from the area would not have stood up, challenged his statement, named some of the dead and accused him of being a coward who did not want to confront India? No elected prime minister can take such a risk, and that is doubly so in Pakistan.
So if no one was killed, was it because the Indian Air Force is so monumentally inept that it missed a stationary target – a large complex – with not one but four precision-guided bombs? Since this idea strains credibility to the extreme, only one explanation remains: that the attacks were intended to miss.
This is the only hypothesis that explains two other anomalies: the first is US President Donald Trump’s curious statement a day earlier that he believed India would launch a reprisal attack and he would ‘understand’ if it did. The second is the care the Pakistan Air Force took not to cross the LoC in its retaliatory strike, and to attack only uninhabited sites ‘in order to show the PAF’s capability’. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the US helped to orchestrate the two reactions in order to ensure that the conflict did not spill over into war.
From Modi’s point of view, therefore, the entire operation has been a monumental success. But for the nation, it is an unmitigated disaster. Yet, sceptics may ask, does one swallow a summer make? No, but the air strike was only the last of several other swallows. Another is the hue and cry that Modi has made over the declaration of Masood Azhar as an international terrorist. Modi tried to do this before the UN Security Council met on Pulwama, but failed. In fact, the UNSC resolution did not even condemn the Jaish-e Mohammad directly, but only acknowledged that it had claimed responsibility. Modi brought the listing matter up again after the tit-for-tat airstrikes and, predictably, China again vetoed it.
Azhar richly deserves to be both named and sanctioned, and the Chinese refusal is a blatantly immoral act born out of the basest form of realpolitik. But how much importance should India attach to a purely symbolic declaration that will change absolutely nothing on the ground? For Masood Azhar has shown no desire to travel abroad since his return to Pakistan in 2000. So the ban means nothing to him, or to Islamabad. What will India gain from such a declaration? The answer is ‘nothing’. But Modi’sself image as a lohpurush would gain a great deal. That is what he has been willing to endanger India’s relations with its most powerful neighbour for. The brinkmanship this involves is in many ways even more irresponsible than what he has shown over Pulwama.
What would have happened if the IAF’s bombs had actually killed 300 students inside the madrasa, whether he was training to be a jihadi, or was simply the son of a poor man who could not afford to pay the fees for a regular school? Would Pakistan then have responded with four attacks on vacant land in POK? And if it had done more, how long would it have been before the conflict escalated? This is the kind of risk that Modi was willing to run in his ruthless campaign to get re-elected, yet the Congress is unable to point this out to the people.
Today, the only sure way to prevent the Sanghparivar from returning to power is for the Congress to maintain a solid front with the opposition and establish a commonly agreed set of criteria for the allocation of seats among alliance partners. In the Congress, the main opposition to this common-sense strategy is coming from the local cadres whose capacity to raise money on the pretext of meeting election expenses and promising favours to donors in return, will vanish the moment their constituency is given to another party. This thinking is threatening to create three-cornered contests in UP, Delhi, MP, Bihar and other states, which could end by bringing the BJP back to power.
The only person who can overturn this suicidal strategy is Rahul Gandhi. It is time he brought his party back under his control. If the Congress is exposed as having only 5% of the vote in Delhi, and 8-10% in Uttar Pradesh, and is responsible for the failure of the mahagatbandhan, this will not only end the hold of the Nehru family over the party but also destroy its cadres’ standing in their constituencies.