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Abhinandan is Back, But it’s a Mixed Bag for PM Modi in Perception Battle with Pakistan

Abhinandan is Back, But it’s a Mixed Bag for PM Modi in Perception Battle with Pakistan

Domestically, the leadership has sent a strong message that it won’t tolerate terrorism, but it’s not a complete win, say analysts.

New Delhi: On Friday, the Wagah-Attari border erupted with chants of ‘Jai Hind’ and drum rolls as the captured Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, returned to a hero’s welcome.

This was preceded by a strong call for his safe return by both Pakistanis and Indians. Now, with Abhinandan back home safe, the question whether India won the battle of perception that ensued after the strikes and counter-strikes by air forces of both the countries has taken centre stage.

On Tuesday, India had crossed over the Line of Control and attacked Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror training camps.

Before an official word from the Indian government could come out, Pakistan’s DG-ISPR (media wing of the Pakistani armed forces) announced that Indian jets had violated its airspace and were engaged by the Pakistani Air Force.

Hours later, the ministry of external affairs, came out with a statement saying it had struck the terror camp in Balakot, calling it a pre-emptive strike and saying the ball was now in Pakistan’s court to act against terror.

After the MEA statement, Pakistan said it would “surprise India”. Barely 24 hours later, Pakistan shot down an Indian fighter jet and captured Wing Commander Abhinandan, but not before the latter took down a PAF warplane.

The development was a major escalation of tensiond and took India by surprise. To top it all, Pakistan released a video of the captured pilot, sipping tea and lauding the efforts of the Pakistani army. India protested the “vulgar display” of one of its men and called it a violation of the Geneva Convention.

On Thursday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced he was sending back the Wing Commander as a “peace gesture” and that he had tried “calling Modi on Wednesday night but received no response”.

Almost three hours later, in a joint press conference, the IAF, Navy and the Army said they were glad that Abhinandan was coming home.

Moments after Khan made his announcement in Pakistan Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing an awards ceremony, said “a pilot project had been completed.”

Observers, however, said the fact that Khan announced it first as a ‘peace gesture’ took away what could have been the biggest edge of the Modi government - announcing the return of one of its men captured in combat.

Through these rounds of attacks, both aerially and verbally, Khan emerged as the statesman, until Pakistan released a final video of the captured pilot, where he is seen once again praising the Pakistani army criticising the Indian media for war mongering.

The video, a heavily edited one, was slammed by not just people in India, but also by Khan’s own countrymen. The criticism forced the Pakistani government to take down the video, but not before it had gone viral.

While many voices, not just in India and Pakistan, have said the final video had nailed Khan’s double-speak and his peace gesture narrative now seemed hollow, Modi has still not emerged victorious. A former member of the National Security Advisory Board said it was a mixed bag for the Prime Minister since it went beyond the strike on Pakistan.

“There are questions after all. They never answered how this (Pulwama attack) escaped the security radar. They never answered any detail on what happened when they went in (to Balakot) and just said it was a pre-emptive strike. People are still asking what a pre-emptive strike is,” the expert said, on conditions of anonymity, adding that while it may not be a strong trend, there is “a lot of questioning.”

“And to that extent, it is not a complete victory. It’s not an unambiguous victory. Then there were questions on what exactly transpired in the last two days. We are only dependent on whatever little the government has said and what their supporters are shouting. I’m not saying the perception battle is lost but it’s not a complete win. There are too many unanswered questions,” the analyst said.

Pakistan gave out every little detail, the analyst said, while on the Indian side, there was a degree of scepticism regarding what exactly happened. The kind of euphoria that one would intend to see during such an intense situation is “missing”, the expert said.

The silence of the ruling government has been questioned by many. While the foreign media has mentioned time and again that Imran Khan has emerged victorious in the entire showdown, Modi, on his home turf was being questioned why he and his party members, including the defence minister, had chosen to stay mum.

It was only after the captured pilot’s return was announced that the ruling party, started opening up about the pilot’s bravery.

After inaugurating a slew of development projects in Kanyakumari, Modi said on Friday afternoon, “Every Indian is proud that the IAF pilot is from Tamil Nadu.”

“There is a lot of shouting, there is a lot of chest thumping. But people are also asking ‘what did we achieve exactly?’ So, have we emerged a clear victor? I would say no,” the former NSAB member said, adding it was not just about the air strikes.

“The fact remains that a Kashmiri youth conducted the Pulwama attack. This made people say that it’s happened from within the nation by someone who is considered an Indian. And India has not provided any proof of it being an outsider attack. Jaish-e-Mohammed has reportedly claimed to have carried out the attack, but we never gave any kind of evidence before the strike.” India gave dossier to Pakistan on JeM’s involvement after the pilot was captured.

“We know that Jaish is training our boys. The narrative that Kashmir does not want to be a part of India has been has been skilfully built by Pakistan. And we have not been able to prove that it was someone from outside who carried out the attack,” the expert said.

And indeed, Pakistan, over the last few days, has continued to criticise India for its actions in Kashmir.

Khan has said he was open to dialogue, which he felt was the only way forward. “Kashmir is the issue. There has to be dialogue. War is not the answer,” he said.

The Indian side has, so far, not responded to his peace proposal. Meanwhile, in the last 24 hours, continuous firing and shelling across the LoC has taken lives on both sides of the border.

Former general officer commanding of the Norther Command, Lt Gen (Retd) HS Panag, had in an interview told News18, that in the information warfare, Indians were being informed by Pakistanis.

“We were being informed about what had happened by the DGISPR in Pakistan rather than our own spokesperson...I would say in the last 60 hours, we have lost the perception battle, hands down,” he had told News18.

A retired senior army officer, speaking to News18 on conditions of anonymity, said, “Domestically, the leadership has come out looking strong — that it won’t tolerate this sort of behaviour from Pakistan.”

“I think it’s a mixed bag. Everyone is giving his/her own spin to it. Ultimately, the answer to your questions lies what has been achieved. India decided to up the ante since we wanted some action on terror. But, has that been achieved? We did something, the Pakistanis did something. They captured our pilot, they returned him. Ultimately, Imran Khan emerged looking the statesman. But through it all, we have shown that we will not tolerate such behaviour from Pakistan,” the retired officer said.

The steadfast support from international community, the retired officer said, that forced Khan into doing what he did has been a big plus for India.

“There are negatives, but we also can’t deny the positives. If India continues to put pressure, despite getting the pilot back, and then there is visible action by Pakistan, then it would mean something. That would be a clear victory. If that doesn’t happen, then it’s back to usual business,” the retired army officer said.