The controversy about what damage was caused by our airstrike, is entirely irrelevant.
In my view, the fundamental aspect about the airstrike at the Jaish training camp at Balakot, is that it signifies a paradigm shift in our security doctrine. In a pre-dawn attack on February 26, 12 of our Mirage-2000 fighter jets crossed the Line of Control (LOC), and used precision-guided SPICE-2000 bombs to hit terrorist targets deep within Pakistan territory.
Why do I call this a paradigm shift? Because since 1971 we have never in self-defence crossed the LOC. We did not do it after 28/11. We did not do it even after Kargil, when there was verifiable armed intrusion into our territory by Pakistan. The intruders were on vantage points. To evict them we would have to send to certain death hundreds of our young officers and soldiers. In view of this, our obvious response should have been to cross the LOC, seal it, and starve the intruders by lack of supplies. But we did not do this. Instead our policymakers went about the Chancelleries of the world collecting certificates of good behavior and restraint.
This time, post Pulwama, we showed the national resolve, in self-defence, to move from credible deterrence to — what is called in military terms — compellance, demonstrating to the enemy nation that when provoked beyond a point we are willing to retaliate by entering its territory and taking out its terrorist bases. It seems almost certain that Pakistan was taken by surprise. It must have concluded, that like in the past, India will not go beyond the rhetoric of a "befitting reply". The Balakot attack thus created — to use another military term — "psychological dislocation" in the enemy camp, and demolished its complacency with regard to India's lack of retaliatory options.
This, indeed, is the principal takeaway of Balakot. The controversy about what damage was caused by our airstrike, is entirely irrelevant. The controversy was created in the first place by irresponsible statements by members of the BJP, giving different figures of the numbers of casualties. They were not authorised to do so. The only statement that matters is what was said by the armed forces in their press briefing. Anything else could be said only by an authorised representative of the government on the authority of the Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS).
It would be unfortunate if a conscious attempt is made to politicise the Balakot attack. Nitish Kumar made a categorical statement that matters of national security are, by definition, national in nature and not a subject of partisan politics. No politicisation does not mean that no questions can be asked about Balakot or Pulwama. In a democracy, people have the freedom to ask, and the right to know. To conflate any such query or desire mechanically with anti-nationalism is, in fact, politicisation. What needs to be eschewed is seeking votes over the valour and sacrifice of our brave soldiers. In this context, the statement of B.S. Yeddyurappa, BJP leader in Karnataka, wherein he said that as a result of Balakot the BJP would win many more seats in that state, is highly regrettable.
Pulwama also is subject to interrogation. Could the attack have been prevented? Was there an intelligence failure? Was their lack of coordination and anticipation? Were standard operating procedures (SOPs) not followed in the movement of large army convoys? Such questions are inevitable in a democracy, and should be welcomed to prevent another attack of this nature from happening. To say that anyone asking such questions is unpatriotic is also politicisation through the instrument of ultra-nationalism.
Will Balakot impact voting choices in the coming parliamentary elections? It could, and it may not. If people believe that the current government has shown unprecedented spunk in responding to Pakistan's nexus with terrorism, it will reap benefits as well. If post-Balakot there is a verifiable impact on Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism, that credit, too, will come to the current ruling party.
If, however, terrorism from across the border continues unabated, and cross-border infiltrations claiming the lives of our soldiers and civilians increase, the government and the ruling party will have to accept its downside. The security situation along our borders with Pakistan, and in the Valley, is dynamic. Much can happen between now and the dates of polling.
Besides, it is not as if voter choices hinge inflexibly on any one factor. National security is one variable, but a voter is motivated by several others, including local issues, the economic situation, especially with regard to jobs and agrarian distress, party affiliations, and the regional calculus of power. To posit national security as a single polarity against many other variables, would be silly. It is not an either-or situation. The bottomline is that if the ruling party is seen to be competent in containing or responding to the threat from across the border, security issues will have some bearing on voter sentiment. To what extent they will remains to be seen.
The task is far more difficult for the Opposition. Nationalism is an electorally inflammable issue. Even if it is not desirable to use it for partisan political gain, the ruling party will seek to benefit from it. The Opposition must devise the fine line between being supportive to national imperatives, and asking the right questions at the right time in the right measure to the ruling party. Its best bet would be to seek accountability from the government, whenever there are good reasons to do so, on the success of the battle against terrorism emanating from across the border.
Pulwama was a tragedy. To the extent possible such tragedies must not happen again. Balakot was an action waiting to happen. The decision to implement it must go to the credit of the government. But any attempt to sensationalise it or make it sound as the definitive answer to Pakistan’s terrorism, as was done with the surgical strike, could be counter-productive. This is the challenge for the ruling party.