India's strikes on Pakistan were expected to bring a boon for the Modi government ahead of the general election in the country. Has it worked out that way?

On February 26 when the news broke of India’s unprecedented air strike on Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the nation was agog. The strike was in retaliation to a suicide attack claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammad at Pulwama on Valentine’s Day in Indian-administered Kashmir. The attack killed 40 security personnel, and the retaliation was viewed across the country as a fitting reply.   

The attack, driven by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, sent the intended signals across the country. The Modi dispensation was not like its predecessors. It would break unwritten rules (in this case sending fighter aircraft across the Line of Control for the first time since the 1971 war) in the pursuit of terrorists. 

It may have been a coincidence that parliamentary elections that would decide the fate of Modi were just a couple of months away. But the consequences were such that for the ruling federal Bharatiya Janata Party, whose popularity was dipping, Balakot proved to be a much-needed muscular steroid. 

Six weeks after the strike, Pulwama and Balakot seem to have perceptibly receded from the front pages of newspapers and top news in television channels. One reason could be that while the action was daring and attempted to show that India was not a pushover, the strikes in themselves have been marred by controversy.

If the Modi government expected the Balakot operation to buoy the ruling BJP into an unassailable position vis-a-vis popular perception which could translate into votes during the parliamentary election, that does not seem to have come true. On the contrary, common discourse is divided over the success of the Balakot airstrike.

For one, the government's claim that the strikes took “several” lives has not been backed up with clinching evidence. In the immediate aftermath of the strike, unnamed government sources told private news television channels that 300 JeM fighters were dead, but mainstream international media in their ground reporting have disputed this claim.  

An irate government has attempted to douse the doubts by questioning the patriotic credentials of those asking for evidence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself in multiple speeches and conversations with select media has criticised the audacity of a section of Indians who are clamouring for proof. 

According to Modi, no Indian should doubt the nation’s military forces. And, that these doubts will only help Pakistan which says the strikes did nothing other than damaging a few trees and some cattle. It has just conceded one death, that of a villager.  

Just when the discourse had died down regarding the veracity of India’s claims another report has surfaced which doubts whether a Pakistan F-16 fighter aircraft was downed as stated by India. According to Indian officials, a day after Balakot on February 27 when Pakistani aircraft flew over Indian territory, there was a dogfight which saw an Indian MIG-21 Bison hit an F-16 that crashed in Pakistan territory.

Indian defence personnel produced parts of a missile which indicated that Pakistan had used its F-16 which went against its agreement of usage with the United States. As per the claimed agreement, the F-16s were meant for use only in counter-terrorism operations and not against India. 

If India expected the US to act against Islamabad for this infringement, that has not happened. Instead, a report in Foreign Policy magazine said officials in Washington conducted an audit and found all the Pakistani F-16s in place. New Delhi is now forcefully attempting to show that the audit is not credible and that India does indeed have proof that it shot down a Pakistani F-16.

The Balakot strikes proved to be unexpectedly useful for Imran Khan's government. Having downed an Indian MIG-21 Bison and capturing its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, Khan exhibited “magnanimity” by releasing him in just over two days in what he called a gesture of peace and goodwill.

For New Delhi that was hoping for full marks, these aberrations have dented the celebratory subtext to the Balakot strikes. 

The Modi government initially maintained that Balakot was a national project and had nothing to do with electoral politics. But in reality, it hasn’t turned out that way with the prime minister himself raising the issue at several public meetings and his colleagues in the government referring to it as an achievement for the BJP. 

But the crucial question is how far have the Balakot airstrikes influenced voters. Surveys say that Modi’s popularity graph has gone up following the strike and consequently could play a vital role in the electoral outcome. At the same time, there is a sizeable number who say that the government’s Balakot claim is like many of its other policies: announced with a bang only to stutter and collapse, like demonetisation and the botchy implementation of a single tax regime for the entire country.

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