Yes, there is a Pakistan hand: What Pak did on the eve of the first day of Indian elections
Three things Pakistan did just before the first phase of Indian elections. The move was clearly meant to have an impact on voters.
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The Rafale controversy, the Balakot air-strikes and the Pakistani leadership’s unseen liking for Narendra Modi — what is common between all these three issues?
Apart from being the centre of political debates in the run-up to the General Elections, somebody made sure that these topics made a comeback to the headlines one day before the first phase of elections in India.
What is even more interesting is that the source and aggregator of these coordinated news items was our neighbouring country — Pakistan.
Earlier, an India Today report revealed how Pakistani intelligence agency ISI could try to influence the elections in India. Here are three things Pakistan did just before the first phase of Indian elections — and what this could mean:
Strike One: The Rafale Twist that wasn't
The Rafale deal has been the opposition’s weapon of choice against Prime Minister Modi who promised a corruption-free government. The fighter jet deal with France has been under constant media scrutiny and is also being heard by India’s top court. Yet, an unlikely angle surfaced on April 10 — only a day before elections. A two-month-old aviation blog suddenly resurfaced which claimed that a group of Pakistani pilots had already received training by the French government — on Rafale jets.
This report was published in February and remained largely unnoticed until Pakistan-based online discussion forum, Defence.pk, republished it.
A day before the first phase of polls in India, a thread of discussion started on the topic.
This thread made sure that this newly discovered Pakistani twist to the Rafale saga was reflected on the timelines of popular social media websites. One of the first few related posts published on Twitter came from Pakistani Twitter handles.
The first Dassault Rafale for Qatar was ceremonially handed over at Dassault’s Merignac facility on Feb. 6, 2019.The first batch of pilots trained for Qatar in November 2017 were Pakistani exchange officers. 🇶🇦 🇵🇰 🇫🇷Never knew PAF got experience of Rafales! pic.twitter.com/nlLYjG3Xh8— AhmAd IbrAhim (@AhmAdTipu7) April 10, 2019
Another similar Pakistani forum — Siasat.pk — aggregated this post further.
Both these platforms are often used by the Pakistani army’s propaganda wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). Facebook, in a statement earlier this month, said that its investigation revealed several individuals running dubious Facebook pages and groups targeting India were employed by ISPR. 'Pak defence' and 'Siasat' forums are often used by ISPR supported groups to propagate the Pakistani national narrative.
As a result, soon this post spread across Twitter — and started to appear on the timelines of Indian journalists and politicians.
France's @Dassault_OnAir has handed over the first Rafale combat jet to Qatar. The only catch? The first lot of pilots trained for Qatar in France are "Pakistani exchange officers". https://t.co/3u7Llf6Ct5— Rezaul Hasan Laskar (@Rezhasan) April 10, 2019
Even mainstream media published a story based on this article which had already been in the public domain over the last two months.
Interestingly, the aviation website — which originally claimed that Pakistani pilots received training by French authorities — later retracted the controversial portion of its story and clarified that the source of its information was apparently an unofficial discussion forum and an Egyptian website.
Egypt and Qatar haven’t enjoyed a good relationship over the past few years and diplomatic ties between the two countries remain suspended. Hence, an Egypt-based less-known website cannot be trusted for Qatar news.
The French government officially termed this whole episode as fake news.
I can confirm that it is fake news. https://t.co/3XpPnfPqUc— Alexandre Ziegler (@FranceinIndia) April 11, 2019
A Qatar government official, who was furious after reading the report, apparently said, “This report is completely false, we have our own academy and if we have to send Pakistani pilots then what’s the use of running our academy?”
Yet, fake or not, the story had made inroads into people’s minds on the first voting day.
Indian agencies tracked the recent Pakistan election to identify a system they believe could be used to target the 2019 Lok Sabha election. (Representational image: Getty)
Strike Two: The Imran Reverse Swing
As a cricketer, Imran Khan was famous for his reverse swing deliveries on the pitch — as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, what he did on April 9, however, was his best reverse swing on a geopolitical pitch.
In an off-camera interaction with a select group of foreign journalists, Khan favoured Narendra Modi as the future Indian Prime Minister.
Modi, who is contesting the election on a hardcore nationalism and anti-Pakistan plank, was attacked by opposition leaders from different parties following this comment by his Pakistani counterpart.
Pakistan and Imran Khan are openly supporting Modi ji. It is clear now that Modi ji has some secret pact wid them. Everyone is asking - did Pakistan kill 40 of our brave soldiers in Pulwama on 14 Feb just before elections to help Modi ji? https://t.co/hIh5PGqr9E— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) April 11, 2019
We lost 40Jawans under @Narendramodi's watch but when the Opposition objected to politicising the army, he accused us of having supporters in PakBut the truth is out now. @ImranKhanPTI supports Modi& says Pak prefers Modi as the Indian PM. So, who has the support of our enemies?— H D Kumaraswamy (@hd_kumaraswamy) April 10, 2019
Congress chief spokesperson RS Surjewala took to Twitter and quoted Khan, saying, "Pak has officially allied with Modi! A vote for Modi is a vote for Pakistan says Pak PM Imran Khan."
Pak has officially allied with Modi!‘A vote for Modi is a vote for Pakistan’, says Pak PM Imran Khan मोदीजी, पहले नवाज़ शरीफ़ से प्यार और अब ईमरान खान आपका चहेता यार!ढोल की पोल खुल गयी है। https://t.co/Qg1a2Hl0Q1— Randeep Singh Surjewala (@rssurjewala) April 10, 2019
Later, when Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, was questioned by the Pakistani senate over this remark, he clarified that Khan’s comments were taken out of context. However, the damage had already been done in India.
Strike Three: The Balakot Equaliser
After using shadow wings to place the plot, it was now time for the real player to come out in the open.
Eight hours before the first vote was scheduled to be cast in India's elections, the ISPR released a video of the Balakot impact site.
A group of international media journalists mostly India based and Ambassadors & Defence Attachés of various countries in Pakistan visited impact site of 26 February Indian air violation near Jabba, Balakot. Saw the ground realities anti to Indian claims for themselves. pic.twitter.com/XsONflGGVP— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) April 10, 2019
This was 43 days after the Indian Air Force conducted airstrikes on the terrorist centre in Pakistan’s Balakot. The Pakistani army, after this considerable pause, took a group of select foreign journalists to the site, in its attempt to prove that the attacks had no impact on the infrastructure.
Notably, PM Modi and the ruling BJP have been projecting the Balakot air-strikes as one of the biggest achievements of the current government. It is a murky coincidence (if at all) that the ISI chose this specific time to take foreign scribes to the impact site and release the footage.
Information warfare has been part of India-Pakistan relations for a very long time — however, this is probably the first time when the Pakistani deep state has apparently used all of its resources to make a mark on the very first day of polls in India, leaving its footprints all over.