This summer will be unusually hot.The rising temperaturefrom what still is only the early round of campaigning is already becoming toomuch to bear. We've seen bickering and bitterness before, but all boundariesare being crossed this time. The most unfortunate and dangerous fallout is thedragging of the armed forces into the political slugfest. The manner in whichthe debate over the Indian air strikes across the border, the detention andsubsequent release by Pakistan of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthamanand theway the claims and counter claims between India and Pakistan have unfolded isworrying to say the least.
We have an official account of what transpired in thenon-military pre-emptive action launched by India on Feb. 26. The ForeignSecretary Vijay Gokhale has been careful in placing only limited facts onrecord. He said,"In an intelligence-led operation, India struck the biggesttraining camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) in Balakot. In this operation, avery large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups ofjihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated. Thisfacility at Balakot was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar (alias Ustad Ghouri),the brother-in-law of Masood Azhar, the chief of JeM."
Serving political ends
Now, we have heard many spinoffs and variants of whatactually happened on the ground. None of them are official accounts but theyhave served to create confusion and serve political ends. In this unfortunategame, thenumbers of the terrorists reportedly killed on the Pakistani sideareusually and conveniently rounded off to the next 50. Thus, we have heardover the past week depending on who is speaking or reporting and on whatoccasionthat 200 to 300 terrorists were killed in the pre-emptive strikeslaunched by India in response to the gruesome suicide bombing of CRPF personnelin Pulwama. The 300 number has been reported by some media outlets, includingReuters, and attributed to an unnamed government official. Reuters also addedthis counter-quote of a local driver to their account of what happened on theground in Pakistan: "No one died. Only some pine trees died; they were cutdown. A crow also died."
Minister of State S.S. Ahluwalia was right when he said overthe weekend that no official count of the number of people eliminated has beencited by anyone on the record. Strictly speaking, that is correct. But thatstatement of Ahluwalia didn't hold for long. Soon enough, and as if to counterthat statement, the BJP President Amit Shah has claimed that the strikes killed250 terrorists.The Opposition parties are not to be left behind and are seekingevidence of the damage that has been claimed to be inflicted on the Pakistaniside.
Race to the bottom
The genuineness or otherwise of these claims apart, and thepropriety of discussing a serious policy action with deep ramifications in sofrivolous a manner apart, these statementsdraw the armed forces into needlesscontroversies.In the thick of what will be a bitterly fought election, thiskind of tempo is prone to sliding down to the very bottom and causing deep harmto the nation, to India's preparedness in the fight against terror and the waythe nation is perceived and the support it receives in its diplomaticendeavours.Air strikes undertaken at great risk to the Indian side are notatool to aid the election campaign of any political party.
The BJP is already under fire for using the strikes to scorepolitical points. The BJP President and the Prime Minister are both not averse tomaking this an election issue. Talking of this specific issue and theintelligence response to it is very different from talking in general of thesecurity of the nation and the political positions of the BJP on the issue ofterrorism or the handling of the situation in J & K.The specific and thegeneral are being happily and deliberately mixed up to pull support. This isdisingenuous and forces a political divide on an issue where there is none.Added to it are voices like that of the BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa, who has alsoclaimed many Pakistani terrorists were killed and gave credit to Narendra Modifor the safe return of Wing Commander Varthaman. He even counted the seats thatall this would help the BJP win in Karnataka. In Delhi, local BJP leader ManojTewari wore army fatigues to an election rally in a brazen and naked attempttocash in on the border tensions. The signals are clear. Party workers willtake these messages to thousands of smaller rallies and a myriad of politicalactivities as the campaign picks up.
Agree on some basics
But the "activation" has been so blunt that voters are boundto see through the gimmick. The BJP will run the risk of losing the initialelectoral high it thought it could drive because of the air strikes. Theopposition has been steadfast and has raised some simple but importantquestions. If the BJP tries to sell the idea of the damage it inflicted on theterrorists, then the opposition will be drawn to ask for proof of the damage.If the death of terrorists in an air strike is political fodder, then theOpposition cannot be blamed for asking for the source of that information. Thisblatant politicisation of a dangerous conflict has to stop forthwith.
The BJP can take the issue of security to the polls. But allpolitical parties must be brought on board with the clear understanding thatthe cross border strikes will not be discussed, that soldiers who died inbattle will not become the subject of ugly political bickering and that allsides will agree on some basics that they can reiterate from their respectiveplatforms.
To that end, political parties must be offered anoff-the-record briefing from the highest civilian and military levels on theissue. They must all agree notto discuss the specifics in election rallies. Theone statement that all parties can and mustagree on and repeat is simple, clearand clean:it is that the nation stands as one in the fight against terror. Whatis missing from our political leadership today is that one line that said itwell in Mrs. Indira Gandhi's statement issued on Dec. 3, 1971, at the time ofthe Bangladesh conflict: "In(our)resolve, the government is assured of the full and unflinching support ofall political parties and every Indian citizen."
(The author is a journalist with Foundation of The BillionPress and faculty member at SPJIMR)