“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” ~Stephen King
In the darkness intervening the 25th and 26th of February, the Indian Air Force executed what is now known as the Balakot Strike, also alluded to as mass extermination of terrorists, damp squib, tree-slaughter and white lie by other players in the wider theatre of brinkmanship that the world politics is. The versions have been crafted to suit respective vested interests of the stakeholders and spectators of the theatre. Constituents of the potpourri are no less than two nuclearized enemy states, one overly ambitious kingdom aspiring to tie the whole planet in knots with one belt, one road, and the two world powers that matter or not. Then there are the screaming banshees of media on the two sides of the Line-of-Control, the terrorist entities entrenched in Pakistan and the pervasively present parasites that help spill their hatred, the rabid opposition parties, particularly of India, and the last but by no means the least, the industrious research scholars and journalists who solve such riddles with a fatal twist.
But a strike is a strike is a strike, inflicted by an archenemy deep within the belly. Impelled to return the favour, a visibly perturbed Pakistan sent a massive fleet of fighters the day after to pound Indian military installations. The formation consisted of F16 Falcons among other planes. They were of course challenged by the hastily scrambled Indian Sukhoi-30s, Mirage 2000s and refurbished Bisons who happened to be at the fore. The engagement would have ended with the retreating Pak planes but one determined Indian pilot had brighter ideas. Ignoring the calls from the radar station to turn cold, he zoomed into Pak skies in hot pursuit of an F16. The ensuing dogfight between an ancient war-bird and a cutting-edge falcon would surprise the war scientists of the world ─an unexpected phenomenon in the times of ‘beyond-visual-range’ missiles. What emerged from the dust and debris of the skirmish was the saga of the Gunslinger, the Indian pilot who rode an ancient bison. Relying more on daredevilry and spunk than aviation fuel or technology, the Gunslinger chased down the escaping falcon right through the frontier and butchered it to burnish his name in the pages of history.
As he ejected from his disintegrating aircraft that had a taken a missile hit from another enemy plane, the nameless Pak pilot of the doomed F16 also ejected from his plane and both landed in Pakistan. While the Gunslinger was fortunate enough to escape being lynched by frenzied mobs, the Pak pilot had no such luck and was mauled to death by his own countrymen suspecting him of being Indian. The public relations officer of Pak Army jubilantly reported having downed two Indian planes and capturing two Indian pilots who had parachuted into Pak territory. It was stated one of the pilots was in custody of Pak Army while the other one had to be taken to a hospital due to injuries. In turn, the Indian Air Force announced its Mig-21 Bison had shot down a Pak F16 in an aerial confrontation, but unfortunately the Bison was also shot in the process and its pilot was missing-in-action.
Later in the day, Pakistan had to eat back the earlier announcement about two Indian pilots being captured when they realised that the one who was brutally thrashed and succumbed to his injuries in a hospital was their own man. The Indian side displayed the wreckage of an AIM-120 missile to prove that F16s were employed, and importantly, to establish that it was indeed an F16 that was liquidated by the Mig-21.
The Gunslinger was returned to India under intense international pressure, and possibly an Indian threat to unleash a massive missile strike. It did wonders to defuse the looming crisis of a full-spectrum war but intensified the verbal sparring. Pak have doggedly stuck to their version of no F16 being employed in the sortie against India, partly due to the stringent end-use agreement of F16s imposed by USA, but largely because of the massive loss of face it risks in accepting the truth. Not only the Pak Air Force had failed to leave any signature on the Indian terra firma, its mightiest weapon, short of the nuclear arsenal, was swatted out of the sky by a prehistoric plane.
Einstein says with every action there is an equal opposite reaction, but the shooting down of a fighter aircraft, whose exploits in the significant past have attained a status of folklore, appears to have caused more than its due share of ripples. Pakistan has flip-flopped in its claims about the number of pilots captured as well as usage of F16s against India in that forgettable mission. On the Indian side, the aura of the Gunslinger has risen above the capability of its air force that has been maimed and truncated over decades by poor planning, rampant corruption in procurement of equipment, and failure to foster indigenous research perpetuated by the congress of crooks. But manifest in reactions of the third parties is the reputation at stake of a prodigious defence equipment manufacturer, and perhaps the cult of American superiority over insistent Russian influence. Worse, it has potentials to undermine the commercial ambitions of Lockheed Martin who are trying hard to sell over hundred Falcons to India, or Boeing who are reeling under the recent debacle of 737-Max passenger planes and are pressing to sell their Super Hornets to India.
So, when Lara Seligman through her article in ‘Foreign Policy’ dated April 4 galvanised the credulous Indian, ‘Did India Shoot Down a Pakistani Jet? U.S. Count Says No’, quoting a couple of ‘senior defence officials’, what was the underlying theme of her exposé other than the point she scored in the title? By her own admission, “the news comes just days before the start of India’s general elections, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking another term in oﬃce.” A glance at the photograph of Modi waving at a public rally in Kolkata inserted at the top of her write-up betrays her preoccupation. It is worth looking back to an earlier story by Ms Seligman run on April 3 by the same journal, titled ‘Amid Re-Election Campaign, Modi Takes the Fight to Pakistan’, and checking out the photograph associated with the article: ‘Sarees bearing the image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a shop in Mumbai’. Further in the article about Balakot Strike, she has quoted Mr Milan Vaishnav, a director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “With general elections just weeks away, the conflict gives Modi… a clear advantage.” Both reports of Ms Seligman appear poised precariously between half-truths and falsities, and the overall tone is certainly not complimentary to the Indian PM or the air force. If Indians have traditionally preferred Russian, French and Israeli defence equipment, both mutual trust as well as cooperation have played crucial roles, and USA has to traverse a longish road on the two parameters.
In a weird twist to the opera, Pentagon has claimed having no knowledge of any such count of Pak F16s conducted by USA. As the motley crew of political pirates stoke up the fire under the cauldron in which they plan to boil Mr Modi alive, the ingredients added by the foreign agents make the broth murkier. Even if Modi manages to beat his detractors and retain his thorny crown, the djinns of doles and loan-waivers unleashed en route to power will starve the armed forces further, leaving it with no alternative but to recruit a force of Gunslingers to blunt lethal weaponry in future battle zones.