More than a year after the Pulwama suicide bombing in February 2019 and India’s retaliatory air strikes on a target in Pakistan’s Balakot, the incidents have suddenly surged back into public conversation.
Matters were kicked off by Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, an MP of the Opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), who on Wednesday claimed that Pakistan had actually released Indian fighter pilot Abhinandan – shot down during a dog fight with the Pakistan Air Force the day after the Balakot mission– under extreme duress because India was threatening war.
Sadiq was graphic in his descriptions: Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was perspiring and his “legs were shaking”, the MP claimed in Pakistan’s federal assembly.
As the controversy raged over Sadiq’s stunning claim, a Pakistani politician fired off another incredible statement. “We hit them [India] in their home,” Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry told the National Assembly on Thursday. “Our success in Pulwama is a success of this nation under the leadership of Imran Khan”
Chaudhry later claimed that he was referring to a Pakistani airstrike inside India on February 27, 2019, and not the terror attack on the Indian paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir. But the damage had been done.
The Bharatiya Janata Party was quick to jump on these revelations. However, it chose to target not Pakistan – but the Congress Party instead. BJP President JP Nadda criticised former Congress president Rahul Gandhi for allegedly doubting the Modi government’s narrative on the airstrikes.
It wasn’t only the BJP. Much of the Indian media followed suit. Ironically, even as India discussed events from 2019, the grave national security crisis currently facing the country was ignored: China.
Intrusions by the Chinese Army in Ladakh have resulted in it wrestling control of 1,000 square kilometres of Indian territory, according to the Hindu. To make matters worse, Thupstan Chhewang, who represented Ladakh in the Lok Sabha as a BJP MP, claimed on Thursday that the Chinese have come in even further than thought earlier. Though the Modi government has denied this, the former BJP MP has stuck to his claim.
As the Indian Army has massed on the Line of Actual Control to stem any further Chinese advances, the rival armies are mismatched in terms of preparation. The Hindustan Times reports that the Chinese have constructed large structures to house troops, artillery, rocket regiments and tanks as the barrels of tanks and guns are known to freeze and become brittle in the sub-polar conditions of the Himalaya.
In sharp contrast, the Indian Army had to send an emergency request to the United States for extended cold weather clothing for its personnel confronting China – signifying that it did not have enough stock or the ability to produce what was basic and necessary equipment for this conflict.
While both Chhewang’s and Chaudhry’s claims were made on the same day, why did 2019’s Balakot dominate conversation in India while the far more urgent, ongoing Chinese intrusions remained in the background?
The Bihar key
One answer could lie in politics around the ongoing Bihar elections. India’s 2019 Balakot airstrikes represent a high point for the BJP. The party had pushed the military action against Pakistan as its main talking point for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, an election the saffron party then won handsomely. The BJP would naturally want this to be the principal talking point in the current elections in Bihar as well – rather than the economic distress that the Opposition is pushing.
This is not the first time the BJP has tried to insert “Pakistan” into the current Bihar campaigning. On October 20, Nadda claimed that Rahul Gandhi was praising India’s neighbour and “speaking the language of Pakistan and separatists”. On that same day, Adityanath, the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh chief minister, bought up the Balakot airstrikes while campaigning in Bihar.
On the other hand, the BJP has been reluctant to talk about the ongoing China conflict. In fact, India has rarely called out China directly for its aggression. In one case, the Modi government even put out a clarification that an oblique reference to India defending itself by the National Security Advisor had nothing to do with China.
The lack of public scrutiny over an issue as critical as a military intrusion is obviously deeply problematic. To make matters worse, the Business Standard has reported that China has chosen to use the BJP’s fear of publicising the conflict to its advantage, proposing a deal that would be harmful to Indian interests but would allow the Modi government to announce a face saver for domestic consumption.
It might look odd from an over all Indian point of view – but it makes sense for the BJP to ignore both China and the economy and attempt to resurrect Pakistan instead for the Bihar elections. But that might explain why India has spent the past few days discussing a conflict that has passed but ignored one that is breathing down its neck.