India is witnessing a senseless political debate on the death toll in an airstrike conducted by its fighter jets on a camp run by Islamist terrorists in Balakot deep inside neighbouring Pakistan late last month.
What makes the debate sensible for the opposition political parties who started it is the extent to which it can confuse the voters and turn them against the federal government ahead of the forthcoming general elections.
While the opposition initially joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in hailing the pilots of the Indian Air Force (IAF) for bombing the Balakot terror camp, they soon started playing politics over the number of human casualties in the airstrike.
They started questioning the attack and the number of casualties.
Was the death toll above 400 or 300 or 250 as claimed by initial reports or were there no casualties in the airstrikes as pointed out by Pakistan and international media? Did the IAF jets hurriedly release the missiles in a forest thereby missing the target? Is the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi exploiting the Balakot incident to achieve a landslide win in the forthcoming national elections?
Questions like these and many more were raised by the opposition to insult the Indian Air Forces as well as the Modi government which gave the military a free hand to choose the time, place and method to avenge the killing of 40 paramilitary personnel near Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorists on Feb 14.
The opposition’s debate at a time when all parties are expected to take a united stand on Indian airstrikes on terror camps across the border will only serve the interests of Pakistan which supports anti-India groups like JeM.
In fact, comments by senior Congress leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Digvijaya Singh and Kapil Sibal, above, Savjot Singh Sidhu and other opposition leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Akhilesh Yadav questioning the airstrikes or casualty figures are hogging newspaper headlines in Pakistan. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is buttressing his arguments against India’s airstrikes by citing these leaders’ views.
A foreign news agency too has questioned the airstrike by claiming that satellite images of the JeM camp in Balakot showed the facility still intact.
To put an end to all debates on the effectiveness of the airstrikes, the Indian Air Force has given the federal government radar and satellite images of their SPICE 2000 laser-guided missiles penetrating the roof of the JeM’s structures and causing significant internal damage. Some TV channels aired them on Thursday (March 6).
Satellite images of the nearby forested area showed a stretch of bare land indicating that vegetation was probably destroyed by the impact of the blast or the area was dug up for mass burials to hide evidence of the killings.
Earlier, commenting on the number of human casualties in Balakot airstrike, federal Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the surveillance system by the National Technical Research Organisation found over a period that more than 300 mobile phones were active at the JeM camp before it was bombed.
If opposition leaders still have doubts over the casualties, they should go to Pakistan and count the dead, Singh said.
Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa made it clear that the Indian Air Force is not in a position to tell how many people were inside the JeM camp before the bombing. They do not count the dead. Their men hit the targets and quickly return to the base.
It is reasonable to presume that the IAF fighter jets took off to Pakistan after confirming the large presence of JeM terrorists in the Balakot camp. Many terrorists shifted from Pakistan occupied Kashmir fearing retaliatory strikes over Pulwama incident were said to have been present in the camp.
Pakistan’s immediate military response to Balakot airstrike proves that India struck where it hurts most.
Addressing media soon after the airstrike on Balakot camp, India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said there were “a large number of casualties” without being specific.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman later said Gokhale’s statement is enough to clear any doubts on the casualties.
But Congress leaders like Sibal still question the government’s estimate of the dead by citing international media. They trust Pakistan and international media more than local agencies. Modi called them Pakistan’s poster boys.
Federal minister General VK Singh has suggested a plan to clear all doubts of opposition leaders on the airstrikes — tie them under fighter jets during future missions to witness the bombings and get them off to count the dead.
Besides questioning airstrikes, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh called Pulwama terror attack an “accident”.
Congress MP from Karnataka BK Hariprasad went one step further on March 7 by bringing in a sports analogy. He said Pulwama attack was the result of a “match-fixing” between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan. This is the worst insult to the memory of 40 martyrs of the Central Reserve Police Force.
If opposition parties led by Congress believe such tactics can bring them more votes in the forthcoming elections, they are mistaken. Like Rafael, the debate on the Balakot airstrike will boomerang on them during elections.