The Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot captured by Pakistan on Wednesday will return home before sundown on Friday. There was a collective sigh of relief around the world as Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced he had decided to send the IAF pilot back in the interest of peace but added that India needed to introspect about its policies in Kashmir that was driving 19-year-olds to become suicide bombers.
Despite lobbying hard to get Pakistan to accept its complicity in enabling organisations like the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) to work against India from their soil, India is yet to get a lasting and irreversible promise from Islamabad that it would take meaningful action against JeM and other terror subsidiaries.
Pakistan’s gesture was applauded by several politicians. Punjab Chief Minister and Congress leader Amarinder Singh said: “This is going to be a step towards goodwill and I hope this will be lasting.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own relief was evident when he exclaimed jocularly at the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award ceremony that he “was involved in a pilot project”.
Khan was the prime claimant for the credit of staving off a war when he told his lawmakers that he had the option of war which he eschewed because “there were no human casualties as a result of the Indian bombing of Balakot, so we thought, although India had violated Pakistani sovereignty, we should overlook it in the interests of peace”.
The Indian diplomatic and military establishment presented, at a press conference, evidence that Pakistan had targeted military installations in India and consistently violated the ceasefire, putting lives of civilians at risk.
“Pakistan used F-16s to attack our territory,” said Air Vice Marshal R G K Kapoor. “One Pakistani F-16 was shot down by an IAF MiG 21 Bison Aircraft. East of Rajouri, parts of F-16 have been recovered, inside Indian territory.”
Indian Army's Major General S S Mahal said: “Our fight is against terrorism. We are ready to destroy terror installations until Pakistan backs terrorism.”
When asked about the exact number of people who had been taken out at Balakot, the IAF was non-committal about the figure but said: “We did what we set out to do.”
Sources emphasised that India had been resolute. Its position has consistently been that Pakistan has never kept the promises it has made about ending infiltration from its territory and this is why India has said terrorism and talks cannot go together.
Diplomatic pressure, and the US, the UK and France moving the UN Security Council to outlaw JeM along with its leader Masood Azhar, also forced Pakistan to retreat.
Many tried to elbow their way to seek a place in the sun too. US President Donald Trump said: “We have I think reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India.” Trump was at Hanoi where he was holding a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “They have been going at it. We were involved in trying to have them stop. We have some reasonably decent news. I think hopefully that [conflict] is going to be coming to an end. It's been going on for a long time.”
Russia offered its services to mediate between India and Pakistan “if they wanted”. This could be a part of the new entente developing between Moscow and Islamabad, putting behind them the bitter and contentious history of their war over Afghanistan just three decades ago. Late at night the PMO released a statement saying Russian President Vladimir Putin called Modi and expressed condolence over Pulwama attack.
China was guarded in its response. When asked whether the People’s Liberation Army had increased the presence of its troops in the borders in view of the tensions, defence ministry spokesman, Senior Col Ren Guochang, told a media briefing in Beijing that “both India and Pakistan are friends of China. We believe that top priority is to exercise restraint and to resolve the issue through dialogue”.
A train loaded with army trucks and artillery guns parked near Jammu
The confrontation between India and Pakistan is likely over for the moment. But the politics over it has begun. The BJP’s Karnataka leader, B S Yeddyurappa, let the cat out of the bag by asserting that after the Pakistan confrontation the BJP would increase its seats in the state, a remark that he hurriedly withdrew later in the day when Union Minister VK Singh rebuked him for it. “I beg to differ. We stand as one nation, action taken by our government is to safeguard our nation and ensure safety of our citizens, not to win a few extra seats” Singh said.
The Opposition, which had been broadly supportive of the government, changed tack and criticised the PM for holding a meeting with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers at the height of the conflict to discuss election strategies. Under the BJP’s ‘Mera Booth Sabse Mazboot’, Modi held direct dialogue through what the party claims is the “world’s largest video conference” with about 10 million workers, volunteers and others. Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, in a tweet, alleged the PM was “hell-bent on creating a video conference record” when the entire country was praying for return of its pilot.
Bahujan Samaj Party Chief Mayawati said: “At a time when India is facing hostility of war and country needs firm leadership, the PM instead of concentrating on the matters of national security trying to serve political interest by addressing his BJP workers is ridiculous besides betrayal of national sentiments.” Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav also said the silence of the leadership was “deafening”.