If you question the manifestly false information put out by the government and the ruling party, you are insulting the Indian armed forces; if you ask for evidence, you are anti-national and a traitor!

But what were they thinking? That no one in the world would document ‘a thousand kilograms’ of explosives delivered in an aerial attack involving 12 aircraft, in the heart of one of the most troubled and surveilled territories of the world, targeting a well-documented Islamist terrorist training camp? That they could simply ‘manage’ the cowed or bought-over media and their cheerleaders among ‘security experts’, drum up war hysteria and reduce Rawalpindi to a mass of trembling jelly, to ride to glorious electoral victory? Trot out a few phrases such as ‘non-military pre-emptive strike’ in ill-managed press conferences and swagger around boasting about operational achievements without proof, even as the adversary displayed evidence of his success?

Even as the air strike altered India’s strategic stance dramatically, it is clear that the regime’s clumsy deceptions, its falsehoods and bragging have eroded India’s credibility. Whatever be the eventual outcome of the current confrontation (indications are that we have already regressed to default setting), it is clear that New Delhi lost the battle of perceptions in the international sphere, even as Pakistan’s posturing won supporters, despite the near blanket condemnation of the country’s role in the Pulwama attack just weeks ago.

What is lost in all this sorry noise and incompetence is, first, the fact that the present leadership took an audacious decision to redraw long-established (and ill-conceived) lines that dictated that India would not breach Pakistani airspace, even in the face of the gravest of provocation — a principle that was followed even during Kargil; and, second, that the IAF penetrated deep into Pakistan, and not just in a quick sortie across the LoC into PoK. These actions should have sufficed to deliver the message of political will and determination, that Raisina Hill would respond at new levels to Pakistan-backed terrorist misadventures.

It is a basic principle of strategic communication that the state’s agencies speak with restraint and authority, after verification of facts, and give out nothing that is falsifiable, though they may withhold the entire truth. Instead, the continuing bragging of the government and the ruling party is making a laughing stock of India. The IAF has refused to confirm quasi-official claims on fatalities in the Balakot operations, or to play any part in the persistent political deception. The statements emanating from the Air Force have been circumspect, confirming only that the attack took place and that the ‘targets given’ were hit.

International sources have now, on the basis of satellite imagery, confirmed that the terrorist training camp at Jaba Top in Balakot — initially confirmed as the target by India’s Foreign Secretary — has not been significantly damaged, but that three points have been hit on the hillside at distances between 150 to 200 metres from the periphery of the camp. With mounting evidence to this effect, we find a process of backpedalling and bullying intensifying. Even as the purported number of fatalities and the damage remain a core element of the BJP’s poll campaign, party president Amit Shah reiterating the figure of 250 killed, the government’s cheerleaders have started shifting the goalposts, arguing, ‘the main thing was that we went deep into their territory’.

If this was the ‘main thing’, why didn’t the government say so at the outset?

There have also been fantastical claims regarding the impact on the Pakistani psyche and strategy: that Pakistan has been brought to its knees, and has been forced to sue for peace in fear. This is specious. It is useful to note that Pakistan’s mastery of deception remains unparalleled, even as does the clumsiness of India’s alternately boastful posturing. A country that has consistently thwarted US intent in Afghanistan, despite its dependency and the possibility of overwhelming penalties, and despite numberless strikes against terrorist targets on Pakistani soil, Pakistan never abandoned its malign strategy in Afghanistan.

This pattern of persistence and deception is already visible in Pakistan’s responses over the past week. Much has been said about PM Imran Khan’s ‘statesmanlike’ responses after the aerial skirmishes, his emphasis on the ‘miscalculations’ that could lead to war, and the offer for talks. This came only after Pakistan had scored an apparent ‘victory’. In the immediate wake of the strikes, he threatened retaliation — threats that were carried out. Crucially, moreover, there has been a significant escalation of cross-border firing, and no evidence to suggest that the peace overtures are in good faith, and not just posturing for the international community. As regards action against terror outfits operating from Pakistan, apart from a pro forma commitment to seize assets of UN-banned groups and a few ‘preventive detentions’, nothing should be expected. These commitments are balanced out with assertions that India needs to provide evidence of the involvement of Pakistan-based terrorists in Pulwama and other operations on Indian soil. The dance simply goes on.

But to return to the original issue of ‘dishonouring our armed forces’, it is people who are putting out false information, attributing exaggerated operational claims to the IAF, who bring the forces to disrepute; these are the people who are anti-national. Not the ones asking questions. This includes TV anchors strutting about in military fatigues, acting like Generals preparing campaigns; these are people who do not have the courage to tell the truth. Instead, they have done everything in their power to feed jingoistic hysteria.

You cannot construct a strong nation on a foundation of falsehoods.

(Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management)

(This article first appeared in The Tribune. It has been republished with the author’s permission)

(Photograph BASIT ZARGAR for TheCitizen.in)