The day after the Indian airstrikes in Balakot, a leading Hindi newspaper headlined its front page report on the incident as ‘Pakistan Ke Ghar Mein Ghus Kar Mara’ (we hit Pakistan after entering their home). Most other Hindi newspaper headlines mirrored this headline with a few variations.
In each, the emphasis was not on what was strategically achieved by the air offensive and what destruction it wrought on the terror facility. Rather, the boast was about ‘violating’ Pakistan air space. The emphasis was on infringement of air and land space and not on the end result of the move. This implied the newspaper’s interest in promoting the symbolic value of the assault and not the actual event and any gains made in the war against terror.
While not belittling the strategic and psychological gain from crossing the Line of Control and launching air strikes against Pakistan for the first time since 1971, getting fixated on it and tom-tomming the achievement demonstrated the superficial and motivated understanding of the newspaper editors.
It was evident that these newspapers and their editors were either being taken in by official propaganda, or had become wilful partners in the false nationalism project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party hordes. Clearly, these headlines were strung across the top of the front pages to pander and promote populist sentiments with an eye on the political barometer.
Given the dumbing down of the media in recent years and after the tone set by most television channels, it is perhaps understandable that several newspapers, especially the language media, too would ‘swim with the tide’ and not adopt a contrarian stance. In any case, the ‘selective wooing and providing access‘ media policy of this regime is well known and requires little elaboration.
As long as such rhetorical behaviour was limited to the media, even when the confrontation was escalating, it was comprehensible.
The problem, however, is when Modi began speaking the language of a headline writer. Beginning with his address in Churu, Rajasthan, within hours of the airstrikes to his latest utterances at Jamnagar, Modi’s statements have reduced the vocabulary of the most serious confrontation in the region since 2001-2002 to the level of a street brawl.
Modi’s choice of words, although signalling desperation to maximise support for the impending elections, are not appropriate for a prime minister even when the Indian Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, claimed that he could not comment on the operations because “they are still going on”.
The problem gets accentuated as even while Modi is steadfastly milking this round of confrontation and threatening that the action will be repeated, government sources have let it be known to journalists that the operation is over for now. Even on the matter of the number of terrorists killed in Balakot, there is much variance causing much confusion.
The problem with Modi’s statements, and that of his party colleagues ranging from Amit Shah to B.S. Yeddyurappa, is that they are not aimed at sending a signal to Pakistan – the military and political leadership are aware of his political compulsions – but are intended to placate his core supporters and woo the ambivalent by trumpeting a phoney sense of accomplishment.
This exaggerated sense of machismo in a terrain where it is best avoided, is evidence of Modi’s fears that the current exuberance and rising support may be difficult to sustain beyond a couple of weeks. It is thus aimed to generate responses like the following, found on social media in ample measure: “He has done it. Ghar mein ghus ke mara hai! Dhamki nahi chetaavni hai.”
He hopes his belligerence will ensure that voters will line up outside the booth when still euphoric and forget crucial matters of livelihood and social security.
Modi’s expressions after the Pulwama terror strikes and after February 26 have been amply reflected in speeches and interventions of BJP leaders, ranging from those holding constitutional positions (Tathagata Roy) to his party president and union ministers. If social discourse has to be imagined in mathematical terms, Modi has always reduced complex algebra equations into simple sums.
This has been evident in each of his policies, be it Swachh Bharat Abhiyan without improving the lot of sanitation workers or Digital India in the age of call-drops. Just as municipalities or rural swathes do not become clean by getting celebrity endorsements, India’s battle with terrorism will not end either by ‘entering Pakistan’ or if Modi gives them a cold stare.
Counter-terrorism is not cinematic badla or revenge. The problem is that Modi often appears to reside inside an echo chamber where only the trusted are allowed entry. There is little doubt that only those with vested interests in the system gain entry into this exclusive club. Just as the decision of demonetisation was taken with the finance minister in the dark, plans of the Balakot strike were not shared with the defence minister.
Political harnessing of India’s military responses to the terrorist strike has appalled professionals who have in the past been part of elite decision making institutions. Those in service would most certainly have similar reservations too but they have a job to do and no intentions of being maligned for pointing out such indiscretions.
Modi has consistently attacked the Congress party and its leaders but his political language has often restricted himself to the lows which Rajiv Gandhi touched with statements like ‘nani yaad dila doonga’. Furthermore, speeches made with the intention of garnering votes run the risk of oversimplifying India’s security challenge.
But this is suitable ploy to circumvent the problem given the government’s refusal to accept that dialogue within India, especially with the alienated Kashmiri society is essential to end the scourge of terrorism. Not a statesman by any chance, Modi has no intention but being a strongman. This leaves us destined to witness more of his ‘votegiri‘ in the weeks before the last of the Indians have cast their lot in the impending polls.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.