For a few votes more, India’s politicians are destroying their army’s reputation

Quartz india
Quartz india

Even before Narendra Modi took over as prime minister in May 2014, consensus was an endangered species in the Indian political jungle. Parliament had been stalled through multiple sessions and verbal exchanges had hit new lows with alarming frequency. Modi’s arrival brought truckloads more of trash to the dump yard.

It was indeed an August occasion—on Aug. 03—when all political strands converged for once and parliament passed the potentially transformative goods and services tax bill. Fuelled more by survival instincts than statesmanship, that consensus dissipated soon after. Normality—i.e. bickering, name-calling, and media cat-fights—returned swiftly.

That’s when India’s reliably unfriendly neighbour stepped in.

On Sept. 18, terrorists allegedly backed by Pakistan raided an army camp in Jammu and Kashmir’s Uri town, leading to the death of 20 Indian soldiers. The nation was furious.

Eleven days later, on Sept. 29, the Indian Army announced that it had carried out punitive “surgical strikes” on terrorists’ launch pads across the Line of Control in Pakistan-controlled territory, inflicting heavy casualties. Virility restored, India collectively thumped its chest. Uri was avenged, Pakistan had been taught a lesson.

While the men in uniform were obviously lauded, the ruling party scarcely refrained from sharing the glory. The Congress party fully backed the government. Party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, whose caustic exchanges with Modi are a staple for social media memes, even praised the prime minister. So did the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is otherwise waging its own war of sorts in Delhi. Marxist-led state assemblies passed resolutions backing the military operation.

India, it seemed, had finally united after a long time. And Modi had found that one move which no Indian could oppose.


Unravelling script

On Oct. 04, India’s information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “Indian leaders are questioning the surgical strikes… Arvind Kejriwalji gets influenced by the Pakistani media.”

Prasad, as well as his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was fuming at apparent demands from the opposition to table evidence of the “surgical strike”—by now already a medal the government was flaunting.

The minister was responding to a video message from Kejriwal posted a day before, in which the Delhi chief minister praised Modi for the military action but also asked him to neutralise Pakistan’s propaganda that the “surgical strikes” were a myth.

Kejriwal had deftly sought to corner Modi. Obviously, releasing any such evidence may not be easy considering its sensitive nature. And yet, with even an Indian leader seeking corroboration for something that Pakistan had dubbed fake, the prime minister now faces potential embarrassment if his government doesn’t release the evidence. Worse, not releasing it could even burnish a dubious reputation.

Meanwhile, the Congress’s Mumbai chief, Sanjay Nirupam, was more direct. He tweeted:

While the Congress party immediately distanced itself from Nirupam, the government’s narrative seems to be collapsing.

“Having taken political ownership for the cross-border action and having publicised it so much, it is only to be expected that people will demand that the video (evidence) be released… let the government respond to the demand for releasing videos,” Congress leader and former union home minister P Chidambaram said hours after Nirupam aired his uncharitable views.

Indeed, the doctrine of “surgical strikes” has been part of the armoury at least since 2007. The army has often deployed it, too, but without much fanfare. By setting up a carnival around the latest such operation, the government has only exposed itself to doubts.  But by setting up a carnival around the latest such operation, the government has only exposed itself to doubts. 

Pakistan, meanwhile, played its cards well. Understandably, it denied that the “surgical strikes” ever happened. To prove its point, the Pakistani army organised a guided tour for Pakistani and international media of the areas that Indian soldiers are said to have raided. It received a shot in the arm when the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan said that it had not directly observed any such incident.

The BJP’s overkill

A stellar military victory often rubs off on the government of the day. Nobody knows it better than the Congress. After all, the 1971 war that split Pakistan was the Indira Gandhi government’s apogee.

However, the BJP has been rather unrestrained and crude in its attempt to milk the army’s clinical success to wax its own image and to directly link it to electoral politics.

Just hours after the operation was first announced, party officials were canvassing for votes.

In politically-significant Uttar Pradesh, which goes to polls in 2017, posters have already popped up with what some observers suggested were loaded messages.

All this is beside the social media blitzkrieg unleashed, almost on cue, by legions of the BJP’s online supporters. Then there is also the media, especially television news, which behaved like the government’s public relations arm: loud, abrasive, and simply dismissive of any legitimate doubts being raised.

This overkill was bound to boomerang, smashing the fledgeling political unity that followed the military strike.

Losers, everyone

The war has now shifted back within India, among its lead political players.

The ruling BJP is accusing the opposition of “doubting the army”—a line it has often deployed in recent times, virtually branding anyone opposing its version of anything as “anti-national.” The Congress and AAP aren’t fully convinced of the government’s claims, raising legitimate queries on the face of it given the strange circumstances and the government’s tendency to overstate its case. But is this the right time to raise doubts?

What may have been a strong, tactical military move—a statement of intent directed at Pakistan and its “non-state actors”—is increasingly getting mired in internal bickering.

Everyone loses something in this circus.

The BJP risks losing credibility, the Congress whatever little political capital it was left with, and the AAP the one chance at proving its maturity.

Most dangerously, the Indian Army may lose a little more of its apolitical aura.

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