WITH Wing Commander Abhinandan’s return home, hopefully, the de-escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan will gather pace. The next few days and weeks will be a test for the governments of both countries — of how they keep steady as they ease back from the brink. The Narendra Modi government will need a lot of room for manoeuvre as it steers towards business as usual with a difference — it has made its point that there will be no more impunity for terror. At this delicate juncture, however, there may be at least two reasons to worry that that space could be constricted and constrained. There are two cautionary notes to be struck. One, with Pulwama and Balakot taking place almost within touching distance of a critical parliamentary election, politicians of the ruling party and in the Opposition, and especially the former, must resist the temptation to use it to draw harder lines within. And two, crucial discursive space must not be abdicated by the political leadership for studio warriors on television and in social media spaces to rush into.
On Wednesday, a meeting of 21 Opposition parties flagged the first concern. They were anguished, they said at the “blatant politicisation” of the sacrifices of the armed forces by the ruling party. The reaction of two senior BJP ministers to the Opposition’s intervention only seemed to confirm the allegation. Prakash Javadekar said that the “Opposition parties’ statement has pleased Pakistan and its media”; Arun Jaitley said “Your ill-advised statement is being used by Pakistan to bolster its case”. That the BJP leadership should seek to label its political opponents as playing into Pakistan’s hands simply because they are raising questions on its handling of a matter of national security is unacceptable. It is as unseemly as BS Yeddyurappa boasting that India’s pre-emptive strike against a terror camp in Balakot will assure the BJP of 22 seats in Karnataka in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. Or party president Amit Shah drawing a direct line between the IAF strike across the LoC, the surgical strikes after the Uri attack and the upcoming national election at a party event in Lucknow. Of course, this attempt to taint the political adversary as unpatriotic as a way of banishing democratic dissent is not a post-Pulwama phenomenon. It was seen and heard earlier during the campaign for Bihar in 2015, for instance, when Shah claimed there would be fireworks in Pakistan if the BJP lost the assembly election. Or when PM Modi himself insinuated that a conspiracy against his party was hatched over dinner by a former PM and vice president of India with senior Pakistan officials ahead of the Gujarat elections in 2017.
The war-mongering on vast sections of the electronic media is part of the noise of a vibrant and talkative democracy. It becomes a matter of concern, however, if and when it assumes the ring of authority. Post-Pulwama, it needs to be said again: TV anchors may delude themselves into thinking they are leaders but if the reverse should happen it would be a terrible thing.