IAF Pilot’s Release: First Step Towards De-Escalation of Tensions
Pakistan’s decision to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and send him back to India is a welcome first step towards de-escalation of post-Pulwama tensions.
Gathering war clouds are bound to recede as the nation celebrates the return of the IAF pilot whose composure and dignity in captivity were profoundly moving and impressive.
The development offers both Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan a face-saver. Terming the release a “gesture of peace,’’ Khan has managed to cast himself as the good guy who is willing to walk the extra mile to restore normalcy with India.
It is significant that the first hint of a compromise came from US President Donald Trump who declared hours before Imran Khan announced the decision that he was expecting “reasonably decent news’’ from India and Pakistan.
“We have been in the middle trying to help them both out,’’ he said, indicating the mediatory role the US has been playing to de-escalate tensions in South Asia. Other countries, led by Saudi Arabia, were also putting intense pressure on Pakistan to hold out an olive branch to India.
While the international community was Imran Khan’s priority, for Modi, it was the domestic audience. Wing Commander Abhinandan’s early release has come as a boon for him.
BJP’s Military Muscle Wiped Out
The capture of the pilot within 24 hours of an air strike on a Jaish camp deep in Pakistani territory almost wiped out the political gains of the display of military muscle to avenge the Pulwama terror attack. BJP circles admitted that not only was it hugely embarrassing, it also blunted the nationalism narrative they were building for the upcoming election.
This must have worried BJP strategists as their main poll plank threatened to cave in.
There was a clear dilemma for the government as it mulled options to rescue the pilot. One option was another air strike on Pakistan. But this could escalate matters and lead to the war that Twitteratti clearly dreaded and had started to oppose.
The other option was diplomatic action. But this meant tedious negotiations and could take time. Modi’s stock was falling with every video the Pakistani army released of Abhinandan in custody. And within a few days, the Opposition would have broken its silence to start asking questions.
It is unfortunate that the political context cannot be ignored while assessing the Pulwama attack and consequent developments. With an election round the corner, both the BJP and the Opposition have to weigh the political fallout of everything they say and do, even on matters related to national security.
It remains to be seen whether Modi and the BJP reap any dividends from Pulwama and the India-Pak face-off. Once poll dates are announced, the election dynamic will set in. Will the Opposition succeed in reviving its narrative on unemployment, rural distress and destruction of institutions? Or will the BJP manage to dominate with its nationalism, strong government and stability narrative? It promises to be an interesting battle.
Road Ahead for Modi
However, the domestic advantage for Modi is only one part of the story. There is a more ticklish question that his government will have to deal with. Now that Imran Khan has held out an olive branch and offered to talk, Modi will have to come up with an answer soon.
He can postpone any engagement with Pakistan on the plea of the upcoming election. But will that be enough for Imran Khan and the Pakistan army now that they have been pressured into giving up a powerful negotiating lever in Abhinandan?
India will have to engage in some deft diplomacy to satisfy its international interlocutors. And one of the concessions Modi and the BJP may have to make is to avoid politicisation of a sensitive negotiation with Pakistan which led to the release of a brave IAF pilot.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)