Political dogfight in India over strikes against Pakistan

A Bharatiya Janata Party supporter waving a flag at a rally in Patna in the Indian eastern state of Bihar where Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on Sunday.
A Bharatiya Janata Party supporter waving a flag at a rally in Patna in the Indian eastern state of Bihar where Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on Sunday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ruling, opposition parties take potshots at each other ahead of election expected soon

India's air strikes against Pakistan continued to dominate political discourse in the country, as the ruling and opposition parties took potshots at each other over different issues in what some media labelled as "strike politics".

Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa confirmed yesterday that air force planes had hit terrorist training camps in Pakistan belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), but maintained that it was not in a position to count the number of terrorists killed.

His comment comes as the death toll from the conflict has turned into political fodder in a high-stakes battle ahead of a general election due within two months.

India had said earlier that the strikes eliminated large numbers of militants, but provided no proof.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accused the opposition of demoralising the armed forces by "raising doubts" about the air strikes. "It is natural that we all should believe the armed forces and be proud of the forces. Yet, I don't understand why some people still want to question the forces," he tweeted yesterday.

He reiterated that the outcome would have been different if India had Rafale jets, which are French-made medium multirole combat aircraft. He said that with Rafale jets, no Indian fighter jet would have gone down in last week's conflict with Pakistan.

India has ordered 36 Rafale jets costing US$8.9 billion (S$12 billion) from French company Dassault Aviation.

NAME CALLING

It is going to be one of the most acerbic name-calling elections. The ruling party is trying to project that the opposition is speaking like Pakistan. The opposition is saying the ruling party can't take monopoly over these issues (of patriotism and national security).

DR SANDEEP SHASTRI, pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University.

Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has accused the previous Congress government of delaying the acquisition. But Congress president Rahul Gandhi has called the deal corrupt because of the cost and the choice of a private business firm over a state company.

Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said at a press conference on Sunday: "The Prime Minister has himself questioned the air strike. He said had the Rafale jets been there (with the Indian Air Force), the results would have been different. What is the meaning of this?"

The Indian Air Force targeted the JeM training camps last Tuesday in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Kashmir on Feb 14.

Pakistan responded with a counter strike in Indian territory, resulting in a dogfight between the two air forces and the capture of Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, who was released last Friday as a goodwill gesture to ease tensions.

At a rally, BJP president Amit Shah maintained that India had killed more than 250 terrorists, with the Trinamool Congress accusing BJP ministers of "leaking exaggerated numbers" to the media.

Congress leader Navjoy Singh Sidhu, who is known for being outspoken, tweeted: "300 terrorist (sic) dead, Yes or No? What was the purpose then? Were you uprooting terrorist or trees? Was it an election gimmick?"

Although Mr Modi is going into the election a popular leader, he has been hit by a series of issues - from demands by farmers for higher prices for their produce and loan waivers, to the problem of unemployment.

The BJP, which is trying to recreate its landslide victory in 2014 when it won 282 of the 543 seats in the Lower House, was hit by its worst electoral loss in December in its stronghold states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

"It is going to be one of the most acerbic name-calling elections. The ruling party is trying to project that the opposition is speaking like Pakistan. The opposition is saying the ruling party can't take monopoly over these issues (of patriotism and national security)," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University.

He added that the BJP had an advantage for now. "People were angry and wanted concrete action (against Pakistan) and supported the air strikes."

Dr N. Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies said: "This is a fight for votes and it's going favourably for the incumbent so far. But still there is time left. Anything can happen."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2019, with the headline 'Political dogfight in India over strikes against Pakistan'. Print Edition | Subscribe