Why India’s tensions with Pakistan acquired a political spin
The chain of events since the Pulwama attack have also played out in the political arena.
Tensions between India and Pakistan are now easing with the return of wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman late on March 1. While it remains to be seen whether this de-escalation will last, the developments of the last couple of days have sparked a political reaction.
Most recently, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not coming to receive Varthaman at the border with Pakistan. Talking to reporters on March 1, he said, “PM Modi went to the airport to receive the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his India visit but chose to attend a political meeting in Andhra Pradesh when India’s hero was coming back.”
So why is a diplomatic situation playing out in the political sphere?
The chain of events
The Pulwama suicide bombing in Jammu and Kashmir sparked off a serious series of events which have led to the present situation. On February 14, a vehicle packed with explosives slammed into a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), killing at least 40 CRPF personnel and injuring many more. This is one of the worst peace time attacks on Indian security forces.
What followed was a mass outpouring of grief and rage. After Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the attack, Pakistan also entered the picture. The political establishment and media all condemned the country for harbouring JeM and several actions were taken. India revoked Pakistan's most favoured nation status. Customs duty on all Pakistani goods imported to India was raised to 200%.
Meanwhile, the government of India urged the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) to put Pakistan in the blacklist. Several attempts were made to isolate Pakistan at the global stage. Domestically, the J&K administration revoked security covers for separatist leaders.
The anger against Pakistan also spilled on to the streets. Several protests took place across the country. A violent protest occurred in Jammu. Following vitriol on social media, Kashmiri students studying in other parts of India were attacked and beaten up. Meanwhile, in Kashmir, anti-terror operations were ramped up.
A military action came on February 26 when fighter planes of the Indian Air Force bombed a JeM camp in Pakistan’s Balakot, which was termed a ‘pre-emptive strike’. The following day, military aircraft from Pakistan and India engaged in a brief dog fight, in which one aircraft from each side was shot down. The pilot of the Indian aircraft, wing commander Varthaman ended up in Pakistani territory and was taken prisoner. He was finally handed back to India on March 1.
Since the Pulwama attack, while nearly all parties expressed anguish at what had happened and promised political sobriety, certain things have stood out. The BJP responded to the Pulwama attack by ratcheting up its nationalist rhetoric and built a narrative around itself as the guardian of the country, taking it to a new level with every incident that followed. Certain sections also tried to use the narrative to attack opposition parties and leaders.
The several parties that make up the Opposition, while they maintained an equilibrium after the Pulwama attack, have increasingly become critical of the government as the chain of events occurred. Following the Balakot airstrikes, a joint statement from the Opposition was issued, which praised the armed forces for their actions but accused the BJP government of using the situation for political gains.
Speaking to Asiaville, CPI (M) politburo member Brinda Karat said, "The BJP and its media allies have shamelessly connived in making false claims about the destruction of a terrorist camp and killing of 300 terrorists. This is an insult to the people of India.”
According to senior journalist and political commentator Arati Jerath, the Pulwama incident came at an opportune time for the BJP, with national elections months away. “The BJP has been hunting for an election issue. Their development slogan of 2014 is not going to work now because the last four years have seen a mixed record of governance... They were hunting for a new slogan. They tried Ram temple, it got little traction so they abandoned that. Then they tried a populist budget but then figured out it won’t help them in the short term.”
“The Pulwama incident gave them a chance to whip up nationalist fervour around it…so they obviously decided to make it their main poll plank,” she said.
However, this has not really worked for BJP, according to Jerath. “The problem now for BJP, this is a real dilemma for Modi, is that Pakistan have returned the pilot back to India. So now the entire international community is focussed on the subcontinent and calling for restraint. India has no option but to de-escalate and that means defusing tension. In this situation, how much can you indulge in that kind of rhetoric,” she said.
The Opposition has also become vocal against the government on the issue. “Initially, they were silent because, I think, they were trying to judge the situation. Now there are so many questions being raised and nobody is able to answer them,” Jerath said.
As a result, according to her, it will not be such a big poll issue. As the poll dates are announced, other issues like development, economy, and jobs will again take precedence.
It is still perhaps too early to say that all factors around the chain of events since the Pulwama attack have played out completely. However, it would be interesting to see where the political narrative goes from here.