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International relations

Modi and Khan see support surge on Kashmir face-off

Pakistan to release detained Indian pilot but tensions still high

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi gained in popularity after their countries' air forces carried out raids over Kashmir.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Thursday that an Indian pilot detained after his plane was shot down would be released on Friday, as a "peace gesture" to ease the tensions that have been building between the two nuclear-armed states.

"In our desire of peace, I announce that tomorrow, and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody," Khan told parliament. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told local reporters that Khan is ready to speak with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi by phone.

After two days of mutual military attacks, there are signs that the two countries are trying to mitigate tensions behind the scenes. "We have, I think, reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India," U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday in Vietnam, which he was visiting for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But officially, India is not open to negotiating with Pakistan. "I don't know what [Trump's] remarks were referring to," a high-ranking Indian official said Thursday to foreign reporters, adding that the pilot's release will not lead to renewed talks between the countries.

"India will not agree to a dialogue unless Pakistan takes sufficient action against terrorism," the official said.

Despite the dangers of a war breaking out between two nuclear states, both prime ministers are enjoying popular support at home for their willingness to take action in the disputed region of Kashmir, one of the world's most militarized zones. 

People hold national flags and an Indian Air Force flag as they salute to celebrate after Indian authorities said their jets conducted airstrikes on militant camps in Pakistani territory, in Ahmedabad, India on Feb. 26.   © Reuters

Tensions began flaring up in mid-February. Anti-Pakistan sentiment was inflamed in India after a suicide bombing in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir killed 40 paramilitary police. Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for that Feb. 14 attack.

The Indian Air Force retaliated on Tuesday, sending 12 Mirage fighter jets into Pakistan and dropping 1,000 kg of artillery, according to Indian sources. Pakistan confirmed that an incident took place, saying there were no casualties.

Indians have hailed Modi's government for the airstrikes on alleged terrorist targets in Pakistan, and their newfound confidence in his leadership comes ahead of general elections due by May.

"I support the Modi government for what they did," said Anita Rawat Panwar, a New Delhi homemaker. She suggested India's security forces go further and launch an operation to eliminate JeM chief Masood Azhar, similar to the one U.S. Special Forces pulled off in May of 2011, when they raided the Abbotabad compound Osama bin Laden was hiding in and killed the Al-Qaeda leader.

Tuesday's raid was the first time since a 1971 war that Indian jets crossed the Line of Control, the de facto border that separates Indian Kashmir from Pakistani Kashmir.

After Pakistan retaliated on Wednesday by shooting down at least one Indian jet, Modi on Thursday addressed 10 million BJP workers via a video conference. "India will fight as one," he said. "India will win as one."

Analysts expect the airstrikes to bolster Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the elections and to blur gains made by the main opposition Indian National Congress in recent months. The INC late last year won state polls in the BJP bastions of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh as growing distress in agricultural communities and among jobless youths turned many voters away from the BJP.

"Modi was under pressure to pursue some form of retaliation against Pakistan-based terrorists," the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said in a note. "And so far, he has been widely lauded in India for taking action.

"With mounting concerns over the government's failure to deliver on its ambitious promises of increased prosperity, Modi is relying more and more on his personal image and appeal to ensure his coalition is victorious in the upcoming elections."

The air raid inside Pakistan adds to the BJP's electoral prospects, according to Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "The opposition needs to keep focusing on the issues of farmers and unemployment," Kumar said, "but they need to do it afresh and more aggressively now to make people feel that these are also real issues [requiring] attention."

Narayan Bareth, a political analyst based in northwest state of Rajasthan, said India's strikes in Pakistani territory "certainly" would advantage Modi and the BJP. "They now have the opportunity to [cash in on the] sentiments of patriotism and nationalism," he said. "The BJP also has strong propaganda machinery and is more organized than the INC in that [respect]."

Indian soldiers stand next to the wreckage of an Indian Air Force helicopter after it crashed in Budgam district in Kashmir on Feb. 27.   © Reuters

Across the border in Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan is the recipient of an unprecedented political lift. On Thursday a range of opposition leaders, including the prime ministers' harshest critics, rallied behind Khan and his call for Modi to exercise restraint.

Sherry Rehman, a leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, in a tweet after Khan's speech complimented his government's handling of the crisis. "This standoff between India and Pakistan has proved one thing: Pakistan is politically mature, strategically farsighted and has clearly chosen peace over war. We will defend our territory like we should ..."

An opposition leader who spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review on condition of anonymity intimated that there is no choice but to support Khan. "Prime Minister Imran Khan has to be blindly followed by all of us at this time without any exception," the opposition figure said. "As you can see on the streets of Pakistan, he is now the most popular leader. How can the opposition disagree with the prime minister as far as dealing with India is concerned?"

Across Islamabad, Pakistanis rallied in support of Khan. A crowd of students gathered in the capital's central Aabpara neighborhood market to cheer the Pakistan Air Force pilots who downed Indian fighter jets on Wednesday.

"We will fight for our country" and "Down with India" were among the slogans making the rounds.

Pakistan says it shot down two fighters; India says one was downed.

"This is a difficult moment for the survival of Pakistan," said Imdad Khan, a high school student among the demonstrators. "We will offer sacrifice till the last drop of our blood to save our motherland."

People dance in celebration after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, during a rally in Karachi on Feb. 27.   © Reuters

Cheers followed Khan's widely watched TV speech. "I ask India: With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford such a miscalculation? If this escalates, things will no longer be in my control or in Modi's."

Khan was referring to India's and Pakistan's nuclear arsenals. Some estimates say each country possesses upward of 100 nuclear weapons.

In view of this, the airstrikes have rung alarm bells around the world, Western diplomats in Islamabad said. One diplomat warned of danger should the situation escalate. "If there is a bigger conflict [between India and Pakistan] international security interests will suffer in different ways," he said.

Hindu-majority India and Islamic Pakistan were created when British rule ended in 1947.

The partitioning process was bloody, and the two countries have since fought many skirmishes and three major wars, including two over Kashmir. The third war, in 1971, was over East Pakistan, which seceded to become Bangladesh with Indian assistance.

Kashmir remains the core flash point in bilateral ties, with India routinely accusing Pakistan of sheltering militants who cross into the Indian-administered area of the region to carry out attacks. Islamabad has consistently denied the allegations.

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