Modi takes 'muscular' path on Pakistan as clamour for proof grows

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embraced the attack as a central plank of his election campaign and criticised opposition parties for demanding evidence.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embraced the attack as a central plank of his election campaign and criticised opposition parties for demanding evidence.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - India's ruling party is growing increasingly defensive as doubts grow over crucial details of airstrikes on a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embraced the attack as a central plank of his election campaign and criticised opposition parties for demanding evidence, while Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah said the airstrikes show India is "secure under the strong and decisive leadership" of its leader.

"The BJP has every right to take credit for this new narrative and muscular approach," said BJP lawmaker and spokesman G V L Narasimha Rao. "This will be one of the many issues on which the people of the country make their electoral choices."

Yet there are questions over whether India killed the roughly 300 terrorists that officials have claimed or - according to Pakistan, and some analysts - completely missed their target in the forested area of Balakot.

Analysis of satellite imagery shows bomb craters far from the structure, and experts have questioned the veracity of the Indian narrative.

India has so far not released any proof.

One thing is clear: India's airstrikes have inflamed nationalist sentiment and will play a key role in next month's federal elections.

 
 
 
 

One poll found the attack could help Mr Modi and his allies win 12 more federal seats in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, while a BJP leader in southern India said airstrikes will help his party win 22 of the state's 28 seats.

Coming after surveys and polls showed slumping support for the ruling party, it could give the BJP a boost as it shifts the narrative to domestic security and nationalism - with Mr Modi's ministers suggesting doubters are siding with India's enemy.

"The strike on Balakot was as much political as it was military - you've carried out a military airstrike, and now you're exploiting it to the hilt," said Happymon Jacob, associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University's School of International Studies in New Delhi. "This government has been exceptionally political in its foreign policy and security policy. It always has an eye on the domestic scene."

SIGNIFICANT DOUBTS

In an analysis of satellite imagery, Australian Strategic Policy Institute researcher Nathan Ruser identified three bomb impact craters about 150m or more from the hilltop facility. Claims the target was hit and hundreds were killed is not borne out by the images, he said.

"The scale of destruction initially described did not take place," Mr Ruser said in an interview. "Personally, I would be surprised if it caused any casualties."

The target was a training camp for Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist group based in Pakistan that claimed a deadly suicide bombing on Feb 14 that killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops.

A Reuters report also said the main building appeared not to have been hit, while another analysis by a former Indian army colonel comes to a similar conclusion, arguing damage "may not have been as extensive as it has been made out by the Modi government."

Pakistan's military spokesman said India's jets released their payloads "in haste," with no casualties or damage.

The BJP's Mr Rao said the country's air force and intelligence agencies, which the Times of India reported had detected 300 active mobile phones at the facility, should be believed.

'MATTER OF SHAME'

India has not decided whether to release evidence, according to one Indian official who spoke on the condition he not be named. At the moment, those asking for evidence risk having their patriotism questioned, as one journalist found out when he queried cabinet minister Piyush Goyal at a conference.

"Are you a part of this narrative that is trying to belittle our armed forces?" Mr Goyal asked back. "I think it's a matter of shame."

Even without evidence, the BJP will make the airstrikes the "centrepiece" of its campaigning and Indians will believe them largely along partisan lines, says Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at New Delhi's Observer Research Foundation think-tank.

"They've made no bones about it," Mr Joshi said. "Whether it will have any traction with the electorate is a matter of conjecture. I think it may give a little bump, but not more."