SURGICAL STRIKE 2 : LOSING THE PERCEPTION BATTLE
Pulwama terror attack of 14 Feb 19 was followed by an Airstrike by IAF on the terrorist training camp at Balakot on 26 Feb, not very far from Islamabad. Not only it caused storm in a teacup but also indicated a strategic shift in the response to terror related incidents. The airstrike, that was against the non military targets, was conveniently interpreted as an act of aggression by Pakistan. A retaliatory strike was carried out by PAF, the very next day in Rajaouri Sector. What followed it, has been discussed over all possible media by all possible players and non players. The fact that our brave pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan, was in Pak custody as PoW for almost three days, has had an adverse effect on the overall picture.
Though a very assertive and significant move by India which should have ruffled a number of national and international audiences, the impact of airstikes on the terrorist camp and the actions afterwards, seems to have been diluted because of glaring gaps in the narrative which should have been a part of the complete package itself. Thus, despite the entire region having been on tenterhooks for almost a week, we seem to have lost the Battle of Perceptions. Perceptions are shaped by all types of media and are reinforced by actions. We were in reaction mode from 27 Feb onwards.
The initial Press Briefs by MEA officials had defence officers as mere spectators. The briefs had little substance as they were nothing more than plain statements. In the absence of Question Answer part, the media was free to go with their own interpretation. The strong message of a policy shift against dealing with the terrorists was, thus, dragged into the avoidable ‘grey zone’. The Press Conference by MoD held on 27 Feb did not provide all the answers that the media was looking for. The parts of the AMRAAM fell short in creating the impact that the Press Conference was looking for. Instaed of having three General rank officers from the three services making independent statements, a wiser option would have been to let only one of them make the opening statement and while all three could have handled questions related to respective service. Comapre this with Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, DG ISPR of Pak, handling the entire media alone. The fact that both Defence Minister and Prime Minister were not available to quell the doubts of the main stream media and also of the common man, further complicated the issue. At the same time, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, used the media to shift the narrative in their favour. Pakistan also (mis)used the pictures and videos of Wing Commander Abhinandan to strengthen their argument of being the victim of Indian aggression. The story of an F16 going down to Mig 21 fire and a Pakistani fighter pilot being lynched to death by the PoK locals has so many versions that none can be construed as true, thereby weakening our argument. Pakistan has maintained silence on the issues that could have been detrimental to their story.
Political mudslinging by various speakers over the efficacy of the airstrike as well as number of terrorist casualties only confused the situation further. The Indian Media was accused, by Pakistan,of playing with the emotions of the entire nation as well as of war mongering. The Prime Time debates added fuel to the fire and were used by political parties to push their respective agenda. This was followed by the speculation of JeM Chief Masood Azhar dying of prolonged illness/ in terror strike. The common man instead of having clear cut military like answers, has been left high and dry and we have lost the media battle. The news conference by the Air Chief is a bit too late to solve the problem. As on date, the PM is yet to address the nation which has had a narrow escape from a ‘could have been full fledged war’ situation. The questions that remain unanswered for the common man are : –
(a) How many terrorists were actually killed in the airstike on 26th?
(b) Was a Pakistani F16 actually downded due to Wing Commander Abhinandan’s fire?
(c) Is Masood Azhar dead or alive?
Thus, through careful use of media and social media Pakistan has successfully turned the Perception battle in its favour, so much so, that there is a talk of Pak PM being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, for de-escalating a warlike situation in the region. Unconditional releae of our pilot on 1st March, was intelligently orchestrated to play with the emotions of entire nation and to project Imran Khan as a messenger of Peace. The handing over process was stretched to further dilute our narrative and also to grab maximum media time. It did find sympathy from an overtly emotional Indian population and media.
We failed to appreciate the situation and its side effects in totality and thus routine activities were viewed through a different lens. The public opinion was divided by the social media teams of various parties and of Pakistan, which further weakened our case in the Perception Battle.
Simple steps like taking the opposition and main stream media on board, by creating a clear cut narrative to be served to different audiences and fighting the battle with equal vigour on social media would have turned the tide in our favour. There are other stories and sub narratives that have not been taken into account but have had an impact. There have been a number of civilian casualties on our side due to cease fire violations by Pakistan. The casualties due to Mi 17 crash near Budgam have not been discussed as also that due to terrorist strike in Handwara in the last 72 hours. The NIA raids on OGWs as well as Governments decision to impose ban on Jamat-e-Islami will have long term impact on the ongoing narrative. Also, the extension of reservation to the population of IB Sector will generate negative perceptions in the neutral audiences. Its time for the government’s think tank to work out a detailed perception management plan for all future military and non military engagements.