On Tuesday, with tensions high after India announced that it had attacked a terror camp in Balakot, Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government was praised for leaving the official comments to the Ministry of External Affairs, which delivered a concise, careful statement. This was somewhat nullified by Modi’s decision to address a political rally with plenty of chest-thumping soon after. But even then, the feeling was that the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party were being sensible by not dwelling too much on what the Indian Air Force had done, and carrying on with regularly scheduled events.
The following day, as the atmosphere became even more charged with the news of a dogfight between combat aircraft and Pakistan’s capture of an Indian fighter pilot, the government’s carry-on-as-usual attitude with minimal communication suddenly seemed completely at odds with a nation that otherwise appeared to be contemplating the likelihood of a conventional war.
Consider this: On Wednesday morning, at around 11.49 am in Indian time, Pakistan’s military spokesperson officially said that the Pakistan Air Force had shot down two Indian aircraft inside “Pakistani airspace” and that one Indian pilot had been arrested by troops on the ground. Around the same time news had emerged that a military aircraft had crashed in Budgam, Kashmir, leading to the deaths of several individuals. Though initial reports insisted the crash was due to a technical fault, rumours about whether it may have been connected to the combat flew quickly.
What communication did the government offer at the time?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who the previous night had pulled children’s ears, taken a ride on the metro and inaugurated an 800-kilogram Bhagavad Gita, spent the morning at the National Youth Parliament Festival where he launched the Khelo India app.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh held a security meeting in New Delhi, at a time when both India and Pakistan announced the closure of airports and the news was still emerging about the first combat between fighter jets of major countries since Kosovo in 1999. But then Singh left New Delhi for Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh, where he addressed a BJP rally, telling party workers to work hard in the upcoming elections.
Even after Pakistan had officially claimed that it had hit and brought down two Indian aircraft, the only response from New Delhi seemed to be off-the-record comments to specific media, saying “all Indian Air Force pilots had been accounted for”. Indeed, almost all of the communication emanating from the government seemed to be in the form of unidentified sources giving details to reporters, or directly to the private news agency ANI, an approach that has prompted some to say that the Indian media is being used primarily to amplify the Indian government’s propaganda rather than holding it accountable.
Without an official response, however, the news and videos emerging from Pakistan about a captured Indian pilot flew all over the internet. Pakistan’s military spokesperson then even addressed a press conference about the captured pilot.
It was around this time that Union Minister Arun Jaitley spoke to the press, saying if the United States could enter Pakistan to capture Osama Bin Laden, “can’t we do the same?” Unfortunately his remarks came at about the same time that it became increasingly clear that Pakistan had indeed captured Wing Commander Abhinandan, as videos that were circulating online made clear.
Only at 3.15 pm, hours after the Pakistan government’s first official remarks about having shot down Indian aircraft, did the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar read out a statement to the media. He said that a Pakistani Air Force jet had been shot down by the Indian side, but in that engagement, India had lost one jet too, with the pilot missing in action.
This was followed by an address to his own nation, and to India, by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, advising against war.
In contrast, Modi has still not addressed the Indian public: His only comments came at Tuesday’s political rally, where he insisted that the country was in safe hands.
Later in the day, the Ministry of External Affairs also put out a full statement protesting Pakistan’s “vulgar display” of Wing Commander Abhinandan through videos put online, adding that “Pakistan would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defence personnel in its custody. India also expects his immediate and safe return.”
And the Bharatiya Janata Party seemed to suggest that his on-going political schedule would not be affected by the possibility of war with Pakistan: The party has continued to advertise that Modi will spend Thursday conducting the “world’s largest video conference” as part of the #MeraBoothSabseMazboot program (‘my booth strongest’) interacting with workers and volunteers in 15,000 parts of the country.
The previous evening BJP President Amit Shah had made it clear that the tensions with Pakistan would not stand in the way of his party’s election campaigning, insisting at a political rally that only Modi can “give an apt reply to Pakistan, finish off terrorism and make India a superpower”. These remarks seem less considerate now that an Indian pilot is in Pakistani custody.
Late in the evening on Wednesday, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath tweeted, asking people to send their suggestions and questions for Modi’s big video conferencing event on Thursday.
For the moment, it seems as if the government and the BJP intend to stick to pre-existing schedules. The all-party meeting on Tuesday to inform the political class about India’s plans was chaired by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. It is also unclear at the moment if Modi intends to address the nation about fears of going to war with Pakistan or the capture of an Indian pilot.