NEW DELHI: Even before details of the Balakot strikes by the Indian Air Force came out, the magic figure 300 appeared in almost all sections of the media briefed by government “sources.” This figure did not come from the top (or bottom) of the media mind but was handed out in briefings that were specific on 300 terrorists killed.

It was a definitive figure of casualties. But within hours it started being denied, first by Pakistan officially. Then by sections of the foreign media who visited the spot and spoke to the local villagers. Then by larger sections of the foreign media quoting western analysts, and then satellite images, to point out that there were no casualties. Just a few injuries.

Interestingly, everyone admitted to the Balakot strikes. Including the Pakistan military, which insisted nevertheless that no targets had been hit, no camp of the Jaish-e Mohammad had been damaged or destroyed, and there were no casualties. Contrary to the Indian position that the target had been hit, that a JeM camp had been completely destroyed and that 300 ‘terrorists’ had been killed. The figure remained in the ‘sources said’ version, with the Indian Air Force silent for the first days. No one came forward from the government to embrace the weighty figure of the dead.

Then the Indian media stopped citing the figure, in the face of information pouring in from across the world. However, it was raised again a day ago by BJP President Amit Shah---the seniormost party leader to openly make the claim---that “250 terrorists” had been killed in the strikes.

"After Uri, our forces went into Pakistan and carried out surgical strikes. They avenged the death of our soldiers. After Pulwama, everyone thought there can be no surgical strikes, what will happen? But under (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi's leadership, the government carried out an air strike after the 13th day and killed more than 250 terrorists," Shah said in Gujarati, addressing a public meeting in Ahmedabad.

Indian military officers had been pointing out quietly to journalists and on the social media that it was impossible for the Air Force to confirm the number of dead. Air Vice Marshal R.G.K.Kapoor was the first senior serving officer to make it clear: “It would be premature to say what is the number of casualties that we have been able to inflict on those camps, and what is the number of deaths.”

After Shah’s public statement, no less a person than Air Force Chief B.S.Dhanoa said, independently, that the IAF does not determine the number of casualties but the targets hit. Addressing the media he said in response to a specific question on statistics, “That statement will be made by the government. The Indian Air Force is not in a position to clarify how many people were inside. We don’t count human casualties, we count what targets have been hit or not hit. The bomb damage assessment that is done post emission calculates the number of targets that have been hit or not. We can’t count how many people have died, that depends on how many people were there.”

So if the IAF has not made the assessment, and of course the Pakistanis are denying casualties, where did Shah get these figures from? The BJP president is not a local leader but a politician of stature, and his words cannot be taken loosely as they will have an impact on the crowds, on ruling party workers, and indeed the entire establishment. It is thus imperative for him to disclose the ‘source’ of these figures, which are the same as those given out to the media immediately after the Balakot strikes.

Incidentally the Air Force Chief’s position merely reiterates what his colleagues, serving and retired, have been saying throughout, that there is no way for the Air Force to gauge the number of casualties. There has been considerable criticism within the military establishment about the many attempts to politicise the operations, with the media coming under flak for its war mongering, and its reportage subsequent to the strikes. As a senior anchor said on TV when confronted by a guest, “We were given these figures sir, the media did not come up with these from the top of our head."

The backdrop has been provided by the ongoing election rallies, the linking of the strikes with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the use of photographs of the serving IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman in electioneering posters, the larger propaganda seeking to link Balakot and his release from Pakistani custody with the ruling political establishment. At one point a Delhi BJP leader wore army fatigues to lead a rally as part of the propaganda and linkages being drawn.

Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa’s statement should be a lesson to the politician to let the military go about its business, and not complicate matters regionally and internationally by fishing in false waters, stoking rumours and bombast that are drawing increasing derision from the world.