The return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman to India from Pakistani custody last Thursday evening was met by a combination of release and celebration in India. Relief because, in the light of what happened to some Indian soldiers during the Kargil war of 1999, there were understandable concerns over his safety and well-being. Ironically, the videos of Abhinandan capture and subsequently, which Pakistan attempted to use for propaganda purposes, may have ensured that nothing untoward happened to him. But this relief that a brave pilot who distinguished himself by downing a Pakistani F-16 aircraft — which Islamabad still hasn’t formally admitted to — has returned home to resume his duties was coupled with a celebratory mood.
This mood stemmed from the fact that Indians were aware that the Narendra Modi Government hadn’t negotiated Abhinandan’s release. Despite the attempt by Pakistan to use an Indian soldier to force India to “negotiate”, the Modi Government has refused any talks unless there is credible evidence that the infrastructure of terror that has been built across the border is dismantled and action taken against the organisers of terror. If despite this refusal, Pakistan felt compelled to release Abhinandan hastily, it is not because Prime Minister Imran Khan is a large-hearted sportsman. The Pakistan Prime Minister was unquestionably an accomplished cricketer but his apparent magnanimity was triggered by two factors. First, he needed to look statesmanlike, which is understandable. But more important, confronted with a beleaguered economy and dwindling diplomatic support, particularly after the UN Security Council resolution against terrorism directed at India by the JeM, Pakistan has very little room for manoeuvre. The jehadi problem may have predated Imran Khan but it has cost Pakistan dearly in every possible way. Earlier, Pakistan has leveraged the Cold War and its position as a frontline state in the Afghan war to bargain its way. Today, that is no longer possible. The country’s bluff has been called and the world wants it to atone for its sins, particularly its patronage of global jehadis.
Imran’s gesture may have impressed India’s small community of liberals who were against the air strikes on the Jaish-e-Mohammed camps in Balakot in the first place. This isn’t because they are particularly fond of the JeM or even Pakistan, but because they can’t countenance any move that could lead to Modi becoming the personification of the Indian mood. Consequently, despite being fully aware of Pakistan’s track record of duplicity, including its role in giving shelter to Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, they have chosen to believe stories of India’s air strikes in Balakot being purposeless. The logic is simple: promote anything to undermine and discredit Modi.
The latest claim is that India has lost the “war of perceptions” to Pakistan. The theory is not based on any analysis of Indian diplomacy — of its record in mustering the support of 105 countries in its campaign against terrorism —but almost entirely on what some foreign journalists have or have not said. It is a different matter that the publications have lost sight of the fact that the present crisis arose from the killing of 44 CRPF jawans in Pulwama and the central issue is terrorism. To them what is relevant is that India has a Government led by Modi and that Modi must be brought down several notches, even if that involves putting a failed state such as Pakistan on a pedestal. The coverage of India’s conflict with a rogue Pakistani state has been reduced to partisan positions on India’s domestic politics.
In justification, it is claimed that this unending scepticism is a counter to the Indian (electronic) media’s xenophobic posturing. Whether the Indian media is excessively shrill and nationalistic or perceives itself as a patriotic vanguard is for the readers and viewers to judge. There is a media war, which to some extent is an extension of the culture wars that have been fought over the past four years, which is of relevance to the journalists and social media gladiators. However, state policy cannot and must not be shaped by this battle. As the custodian of national interests, the Indian Government has a paramount responsibility to its people, and not least the overwhelming majority that identifies itself with the nation. The shift in the country’s strategic doctrine from the do-nothing approach of, say, 2008 to the willingness to cross the Line of Control when necessary was a response to pressure from below — a sentiment that Modi understood and acted in accordance with. True, there are other expressions of opinion in India but they should be accommodated only if they are broadly in synch with national priorities — including the relentless war on terrorism.
In reality, India is today not a divided house. In all the conflicts, there have been the odd dissenting voices. In 1962, during the war with China, a section of the Communists chose to be partial to China. In 1971, the CPI(M) equated Indira Gandhi with Yahya Khan. And during the Kargil conflict in 1999, the Congress baited the Government unendingly, hoping that the failure to recover the heights would lead to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s defeat in the election. It is that same game that is being replayed today. But just because there are awkward noises being made, it doesn’t imply that the nation should get distracted. Democracy, unfortunately, also confers rights on those whose values don’t correspond with national priorities. They have to be tolerated but not heeded.