On Wednesday, social media was full of images and video clips of captured IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman bloodied, arrested, blindfolded, then cleaned up and casually quizzed while sipping a cup of tea. His MiG-21 Bison jet had been shot down, following a duel with a Pakistan Air Force F-16, inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
In the over 24 hours since, Indian mainstream media outlets and social media users have been baying for retribution and demanding that Pakistan return the captured pilot, while simultaneously exhorting the Indian government to free him.
On Thursday afternoon, however, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that Abhinandan would be released on Friday 'as a peace gesture'.
As a true statesman, taking the lead, Prime Minister of Pakistan @ImranKhanPTI announced that Pakistan will release captured Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman tomorrow as a peace gesture.#LetBetterSensePrevail
" PTI (@PTIofficial) February 28, 2019
Whether it was the tenets of the Geneva Conventions that prevailed upon the Pakistani prime minister or concerns about escalating the situation is unknown, and more to the point, irrelevant. What needs to be noted is how Khan owned the narrative of the whole episode and demonstrated that he was taking the moral high ground in an increasingly volatile situation. But his announcement in the Pakistani Parliament that the pilot is to be released was no flash-in-the-pan or a one-off. He's been carefully managing the narrative ever since Abhinandan was captured. A few hours after the news of the MiG-21 jet being shot down hit the airwaves, Khan addressed his nation in a conciliatory manner. After speaking briefly about the horrors of war, he turned his attention to India and said,"[W]ith our weapons capability... on both sides, can we afford a miscalculation? It will neither be in my control nor [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi's. The hurt that has been caused due to the Pulwama attack, we want to come to the table and talk about terrorism that effects us both." He warned, "I had stated that if India plays war games, we will retaliate. We waited, and today we took action. It was our plan to not cause any collateral damage and not to cause any casualties." In doing so, he was able to paint a picture of Pakistan being mature and rational about the whole imbroglio and retaliating only when provoked. Interestingly, during the time since Abhinandan's capture, Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, for the most part, remained belligerent " threatening to boycott the upcoming Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meet if his Indian counterpart and the summit's guest of honour Sushma Swaraj was allowed to attend " and Khan's party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, continued to goad India with missives like the following:
But a desperate bid to win an election by one man is gripping an entire nation in war hysteria. India needs to realise that war is in no one's interest except Narendra Modi; whose escalating ego is reminiscent of dictators who started world wars.#SayNoToWar https://t.co/uNZZ40hXD0 " PTI (@PTIofficial) February 27, 2019
Air Force excursions, war mongering, soldiers in captivity and the lives of so many people in danger all equate to 22 seats in the eyes of representatives on India's ruling party. Is war an election option?#SayNoToWar https://t.co/BdiqiJcdVP
" PTI (@PTIofficial) February 28, 2019
All the while, Khan stuck to his script and spoke of peace. On Thursday morning, his desire to speak to Modi over the phone in order to defuse tensions was reiterated by Qureshi. And finally, on Thursday afternoon, his decision to release Abhinandan as a 'peace gesture' was announced to the world at large.
Even as news channels flash phrases like "India Frees Abhinandan" proudly across their tickers, the fact is India didn't 'free' Abhinandan. At least not until such time as details emerge about possible back-channel negotiations or other off-the-record discussions that may have pushed Abhinandan's case along. The pilot's return home will be seen as Pakistan 'releasing' Abhinandan. And with that show of apparent magnanimity, Khan managed not only to take hold of the narrative of the entire episode, but also to signal the notion that his country seeks peaceful ties with its neighbours and to grab the moral high ground.
In contrast, Modi " who has yet to address the nation about the pilot's capture, much less to speak about the rising tensions between the South Asian nuclear neighbours " has kept eerily mum about the whole episode, and ceded moral high ground to Khan and let him come out on top, in terms of optics at least.