Prime Minister Narendra Modi always keeps his most aggressive sound bytes for when he is back home. Campaigning in his native Gujarat, the Prime Minister - apparently speaking of himself, as he increasingly does, in the third person - said "a senior American official" claimed about the days after the Balakot airstrike that "Modi has kept ready 12 missiles and might attack and the situation will deteriorate... Pakistan announced they would return the pilot on the second day, else it was going to be a qatal ki raat."
By any standards, even the depressing ones of this election, this is an unusual comment for a sitting Prime Minister to make. For us citizens of India, it raises the following basic question: Huh? So is the PM admitting this was true? Or not? After all, a similar Reuters report about possible missile strikes had been attacked by the government, anonymously, as "war psychosis". Plus, is the PM saying that he was willing to start a nuclear war over the capture of Abhinandan? If so, what a strategic climb-down. We were supposed to put pressure on Pakistan to not carry out attacks of the sort that killed our paramilitary jawans at Pulwama. Instead, we are now thumping our chests about little more than Pakistan returning a single pilot?
That wasn't the only quote from the PM that should have startled us in recent days. Speaking in Rajasthan's Barmer, the PM described our nuclear deterrent thus: "Every other day, they [Pakistan] used to say 'we have nuclear button, we have nuclear button'. What do we have then? Have we kept it for Diwali?"
Look, I know we have an election on. I know that the Bharatiya Janata Party, for whatever reason - perhaps because it's losing, though I don't believe that - has decided to fight this election on the single issue of national security. But even then, I have to question whether anybody would feel safer after hearing India's Prime Minister discuss nuclear exchanges with Pakistan in this glib manner. It takes a certain chutzpah to joke about nuclear exchanges while standing in Barmer at the Pakistan border - just one of the districts that would be wiped out if we actually ever found ourselves at in a nuclear war.
For one thing, it suggests that the Prime Minister appears as uncertain as the rest of us as to what happened after Balakot. We know Abhinandan was captured, and we know he was returned. But does the PM really think that this happened because he threatened Pakistan? Or was it because of the behind-the-scenes pressure from the United States and by the United Arab Emirates, as Donald Trump let slip? Was Imran Khan telling the truth when he said he couldn't get in touch with Modi to de-escalate? And how exactly were these threats conveyed?
Imran Khan has never impressed me as being either intelligent or progressive. He has compromised with the most fundamentalist sections of Pakistani society to achieve power, and he won an election that was carefully managed for him by the Pakistani military. So how humiliating is it for an Indian to observe that the Prime Minister of a bankrupt, militaristic state that runs terrorists into its neighbours, spoke with proper restraint and context of how uncontrollable nuclear exchanges might be; while the Prime Minister of our own country, responsible nuclear power and future world leader that it is, speaks of the nuclear option so glibly and in order to win tepid applause at a provincial election rally? We were promised a 56-inch state, a national security paradigm that earned us respect - not one that the world would laugh at in amazement.
It seems that there is nothing of the strategic arsenal built up by years of diplomacy and restraint under previous governments that this one is not willing to spend in order to win an election. The Balakot strikes meant our reputation for control under provocation vanished. Our inability to prevent counter-incursions by the Pakistan Air Force, and the capture of Abhinandan, eroded our reputation for military preparedness. And now, most damagingly, our hard-won reputation for responsibility and sobriety over nuclear issues is being spent - again, just to try and get an extra seat or two in an election the government is probably winning anyway. This is nothing less than a visible, reckless disregard for our national security.
Many pundits have long declared that Modi and the BJP cannot be tackled on national security, and that the opposition is best served by sticking to economics. The timorous opposition seems to have agreed with this point of view. What a disappointment - for it means that there is no accountability for statements like these. The truth is that the Indian public deserve to be told how this government is reducing our standing in the world through politicisation of national security; how much respect we are losing; and how we are less safe than we were five years ago, not more. Unfortunately, few in the opposition have been willing to make these points. If Rahul Gandhi is not able to do it for whatever reason, can he not at least send Captain Amarinder on a tour of the country to make these points? Instead, the Indian voter has been left with the impression that this sort of WhatsApp-ready bombast is strategy, that these meme-ready jokes will terrify terror-sponsors in Pakistan. If the opposition is losing because the BJP has made it a national security election, then the opposition has only itself to blame for being intimidated by know-it-all pundits into failing to take advantage of government missteps. As the PM's increasingly wild statements make clear, its lack of seriousness on national security should have been the BJP's Achilles heel. Instead, it may win them the election.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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