BJP sidesteps Imran Khan on Balakot

(Imran Khan is the 9th most popular world leader on Tweeter)

Isn’t it curious that the BJP has been put on the defensive by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan who trashed India’s ruling party for its “attempt to win elections through whipping up war hysteria and false claims of downing a Pak F 16”? 

The BJP has apparently panicked over Imran Khan’s sharp tweet on Saturday insisting that the Modi government’s claim of having shot down a Pakistani F-16 jet is sheer baloney. Imran Khan tweeted: “The truth always prevails and is always the best policy. BJP’s attempt to win elections through whipping up war hysteria and false claims of downing a Pak F 16 has backfired with US Defence officials also confirming that no F16 was missing from Pakistan’s fleet.”

 Typically, BJP never misses a spat and would have snapped back at Imran Khan almost in real time. But 24 hours have passed and BJP has chosen to forgive Imran Khan. Is a back channel at work between Delhi and Islamabad to patch up with Imran Khan? Seems so. 

To be sure, Delhi is acutely conscious that Imran Khan’s tweet came soon after the Pakistani military spokesman threatened the Modi government on Thursday that it has “surprises” in store, which would presumably expose the Modi government thoroughly over the latter’s version of what actually happened in the downstream of the Balakot strike on February 26, which is still shrouded in the fog of war, and the subsequent jingoistic election rhetoric by the PM and the BJP leaders. 

If the Pakistani military official keeps his word, it may cause serious embarrassment to the Modi government, especially if the “surprises” are sprung during the coming fateful weeks of the current election season in India. That probably explains the nervousness apparent in the BJP’s diversionary tactic apropos Imran Khan’s tweet mocking it as a bunch of war mongers. Interestingly, the BJP has fielded Railway Minister Piyush Goyal to launch a diversionary attack on the Congress instead of Rajnath Singh or Arun Jaitley or Sushma Swaraj opening all 8 cylinders to fire at Imran Khan. 

However, will Goyal’s diversionary tactic succeed? It’s a subtle hint to Imran Khan to show mercy. But the fact of the matter is that the Modi government needlessly started this entire controversy by insulting the Pakistani military and civilian leadership needlessly and is now pleading for a “ceasefire”, fearing a lethal backlash that may cast the Indian leadership in very poor light as comical figures. 

Indeed, the Indian spin doctors overreached by projecting the Pakistani leadership and the Inter-Services Intelligence, in particular, as a bunch of cowardly people by planting a highly scurrilous report in the Hindustan Times a fortnight ago. The HT report on March 23 was purportedly based on investigative work by the daily’s Delhi and Washington bureaus but it doesn’t need much ingenuity to figure out the main source who would have planted the story. It is an open secret in Delhi as to who plants such stories in the HT on national security issues. 

Two national heroes emerge out of the HT report — PM Narendra Modi and the National Security Advisor. Cutting out the frills to embellish the report, the HT piece at its very core claimed that : 

a) Modi decided to “up the ante” when Pakistan captured an Indian pilot and presumably, a R&AW official by name Anil Dhasmana called up Pakistan’s ISI chief Asif Munir (a serving Lt. General in the Pakistani army) to threaten that India would go up the escalation ladder “if the pilot was harmed.” 

b) Simultaneously, Doval picked up a ‘hotline’ and made it clear to told his US counterpart John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well that “India was prepared for the worst if any bodily harm came to” the Indian pilot. Doval apparently threatened to fire 12 missiles at Pakistan. 

c) The GHQ in Rawalpindi and the ISI reverted within hours on the very same day (February 27) to inform Delhi that “it would release the pilot and that a statement to this effect would be made by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Parliament on February 28. Rawalpindi also told Delhi that it would take action against JeM including its leader Masood Azhar.” 

Succinctly put, the HT report made out that Modi and Doval threatened Pakistan with a missile strike and the Pakistani army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa took fright and summarily caved in by complying with the Indian ultimatum to release the Indian pilot, and duly instructed Imran Khan to make a formal announcement on it. 

What was the need to brag on these sensational lines in the media barely three weeks after the exchanges remains unclear. Of course, the HT report glorified the grit and political courage of Modi and the icy coolness of Doval under stress. Clearly, the HT report implied that “toughness” pays with Pakistan and Modi and Doval are indeed tough as nails. It just stopped short of recommending a second term for the PM and his NSA. 

But our spin masters overlooked that the HT report of self-glorification also cast Gen. Bajwa and Gen. Munir as somewhat cheeky people who could be bullied easily, apart from caricaturing Imran Khan as a mere inconsequential poster boy. 

At any rate, the damage has been done. Now, the Pakistanis are not like the Soviets in the Cold War era who would suffer public humiliation at the hands of the US so long as their larger purpose was served. On the other hand, if anyone knows the Pakistani DNA, optics matter to them like hell. Certainly, a Punjabi 4-star general and a blue-blooded Pathan will particularly value valour and honour. Modi may not know this, but Doval who served in Pakistan long enough ought to know. 

Suffice to say, it was appalling idiocy to put out such self-serving spin in the media on a highly sensitive topic, no matter the short term compulsion to churn out campaign rhetoric during the election fever in India. On the contrary, if all that HT reported was indeed true, a good case can be made that discretion should have been the better part of our behaviour. For, the telephonic exchanges on February 27 should have remained confidential, since a degree of mutual trust accrued out of them involving Delhi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi that might come handy in future, if an emergency situation were to arise. After all, that’s what platinum-grade statecraft is all about.

To be sure, the Pakistani backlash has begun. True to style, it is coming in driblets. On focus at the moment is India’s credibility in claiming that the IAF shot down a Pakistani F-16. Delhi is already struggling to establish its credibility when Imran Khan fires a salvo. But what about the “surprises” in store? 

Who knows what actually transpired between Dhasmana and Munir? Such conversations are invariably recorded by both sides. What if Pakistan comes out with a version that radically differs from the HT version and casts Doval as a mere supplicant? What if a deal was struck between the two spymasters to “de-escalate”? What if Pakistan now comes out with details of a second Indian plane it claims to have shot down? 

Of course, any number of possibilities arise that could puncture the jingoistic version that Modi presented on public platforms. That explains the degree of nervousness apparent in the BJP’s hurry to deflect attention from the gauntlet that Imran Khan threw at it yesterday and to move on.

However, will the ISI and GHQ in Rawalpindi be pacified? Put differently, will Imran Khan and Gen. Bajwa cooperate with Modi’s need to use Pakistan as his punch bag during the election campaign to polarise Hindu voters? Time will tell.