BJP And Modi, Known For Circus Management, Lose It
Standoff with Pakistan is, at its core, an embarrassing “communications disaster”.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Modi government are seen to enjoy a huge propaganda advantage over anyone they decide to take on. This has been finely sharpened by Narendra Modi’s event-management skills.
Smart communications, first off the ground and aggressive and ‘effective messaging’ have been the BJP’s forte.
On February 26, when India hit Balakot, starting from PM Modi in Churu to others tweeting on the “Josh” and the party president making a case for voting for Modi and the BJP to protect India.
But, there were missteps even on that day, which failed to shake off scepticism in international media. There was no video and a claim of “300” persons remained unsubstantiated, even partially. Meanwhile, Pakistan opened up the territory to show how India’s claims were on thin ground.
This was what the International Press wrote, as a WhatsApp forward helpfully publicised widely:
“Nobody buys India’s strike story.”
International media already dissecting the entire operation:
New York Times: “The view that little had been damaged was supported by military analysts and two Western security officials, who said that any militant training areas at the site, in the Pakistani province of (KPK), had long since packed up or dispersed. Balakot and its surrounding area hosted numerous militant training camps until 2005, when a powerful earthquake struck the area, devastating its towns and villages. As international aid groups poured in to provide relief, militants packed up their camps and went elsewhere, to avoid being detected.”
London-based Jane’s Information Group, which tracks the defence industry: “a lot of intelligence sources say those camps in Pakistan had been cleaned out .. This is more political symbolism than anything else. Mr. Modi had to show some demonstrable action on India’s part, ahead of elections.”
Washington Post: “Initial reports from local police officials and residents who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that a strike took place in a mountainous area a few miles outside town, but they said they saw no signs of mass casualties.”
Daily Telegraph: “Villagers in the area told Reuters they heard four loud bangs in the early hours of Tuesday but reported only one person wounded by shrapnel. “We saw trees fallen down and one house damaged and four craters where the bombs had fallen,” said Mohammad Ajmal, a 25-year-old who visited the site.”
The Guardian: “The attack was celebrated in India, but it was unclear on Tuesday whether anything significant had been struck by the fighter jets, or whether the operation had been carefully calibrated to ease popular anger over the 14 February suicide bombing without drawing a major Pakistani reprisal. Local media in Pakistan as well as Reuters quoted residents of Balakot who said they heard four to five blasts overnight which damaged homes and left large pockmarks in the ground.”
Gulf News: “From what villagers could see, the Indian attack had missed its target as the bombs dropped exploded about a kilometre away from the madrasa. Fida Hussain Shah, a 46 year-old farmer, said he and other villagers had found pieces of Indian ordnance that had splintered pine trees on the hill but the only casualty was a man sleeping in his house when shrapnel broke the windows.”
The past 48 hours, for the party politically, Modi personally and the Centre it has been a Communications disaster.
What seemed to completely spook the image-conscious and chest-thumping Modi government was the counter-hit by the Pakistan air force, on the next morning after India’s Ballot strike. The DGISPR, or the Pakistan Armed Forces Public Relations representative, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, with his clear messaging and the capture of an Indian Air Force pilot, sent Modi himself and his ministers into lockdown. And there was absolute silence from them all day.
Meanwhile, Pakistan put out videos of the captured IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, his ID, his papers etc, drinking tea, answering questions from Pakistan army personnel, leaving India with no room for countering it.
Then, Pakistan PM Imran Khan unleashed a conversation to explain what had been done, that is, an attack to show that Pakistan could defend itself. He spoke for two minutes, specifically addressing Indians, making a case for “peace” and “talks”. His comment, on “the kind of weapons we have” making it impossible to control escalation, made it a very difficult act to follow in passive-aggression and projected Pakistan as measured and himself as a Statesman.
It was only by late afternoon that the Ministry of External Affairs was asked to rustle up a “briefing” in Delhi, which comprised the Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Raveesh Kumar, and an Air Vice Marshal, who did not take questions. The news they had to share was not inspiring. Air Vice Marshal and Raveesh Kumar issued a prepared statement on Wednesday. MEA India, in the statement, said that Pakistan responded to India’s counter-terrorism action this morning by using its Air Force. It was also mentioned that one MiG-21 was lost in this engagement and an Indian pilot is missing in action.
The Defence Minister of India – Nirmala Sitharaman – was still AWOL, the second day running and the Home Minister decided to go off to Chhattisgarh on political campaigning. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi? He inaugurated a Khelo India App that morning. The Times of India reported: “PM Narendra Modi on Wednesday launched the Khelo India Mobile App at the Youth Parliament Festival. App helps create awareness about sports and fitness, especially among youngsters. The emphasis is on developing the sporting culture in India and turning the country into a global sporting superpower..”
What made matters worse was a 21-Party meeting of the Opposition which called out the Central government for not heeding to convention, as when the all-party meeting was called, the PM was away campaigning. The parties charged the government with “blatant politicisation” of the fight against terror, and asked why the convention of an all-party meeting being called by the PM in such a tense situation was not adhered to.
In the morning too – The Defence Minister was still missing completely, the Prime Minister silent.
As the ‘Comm Disaster’ got worse, just after noon, the PM continued with his scheduled party appearance — “biggest video-conference” — and addressed “booth-workers” of the BJP. Nothing to offer on a serious Border situation.
Later, the government decided to field Integrated armed services, all three service representatives, to try and counter at least the DGISPR’s uniformed images.
As speculation gathered about what they might say in the evening, the Pakistani PM upped the game and announced the release of the captive IAF pilot, dramatically, in Parliament, which met with a loud thump from Pakistani MNAs.
PM Modi, around the time at Vigyan Bhawan, addressing scientists, could only offer a cheap shot which did not even make much sense – about “pilot project” to be made scalable later, “this is only practice.”
Khan’s show of magnanimity and control and direct communication was met with Modi’s inept and clumsy messaging.
The Armed Forces tri-services Press Conference got postponed and resulted in a session of claims of how India had shot an F-16, along with purported wreckage of the Pakistani plane. However, at best, it was a statement of too little, far too late a response to yesterday’s story.
It is not usually that one sees a Sarkar and Party, so verbose and anxious to communicate, be at such a loss.
Anxiety to use and milk this “event” for the Elections due next month saw hectic action on the day that India struck Balakot. But within hours, the party had been spooked, outmanoeuvred and outclassed – all, sadly, at its own game.
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