Has Narendra Modi found his bramhastra to take on the mahagathbandhan? Will the 2019 Lok Sabha elections become all about the Pulwama and now the Balakot attacks?
If you heard the prime minister’s speech in Churu, Rajasthan, Tuesday, you would think so. Addressing a rally of ex-servicemen, in a region full of serving and former soldiers, on the day the Indian Air Force struck terror camps in Balakot (a coincidence?), Mr Modi made no secret of his intent to exploit this issue in the coming elections. He did not name Balakot, or Pulwama for that matter. He did not need to. Photographs of the 40 CRPF jawans killed in the Pulwama attack adorned the stage backdrop.
The news about the IAF airstrike was on everyone’s mind. The opportunity was tailor-made for Modi and he was using it to the hilt. He used all his theatrical skills for rabble rousing. For the record, he did mention PM-Kisan scheme and Ayushman Bharat, mainly to put the Congress government in Rajasthan in the dock. But the real message was clear: you can trust me on national security. As he said unabashedly “the nation is in safe hands”.
With TV news channels outbidding one another in studio patriotism, everything else was forgotten. That same day, Modi’s ‘feet washing’ of sanitary workers had invited sharp reaction from safai karmachari organisations and people working for their rights. But that vanished after the IAF strike. At least for the time being, the farmers’ issue has taken a back seat. The BJP is quietly exploring ways of bypassing the Model Code of Conduct to slip in the second installment of Rs 2,000 under PM-Kisan, just before the polling day. There are no signs of employment situation getting any better, but the government brazens it out, cooking up one more series of EPFO data to negate mountain of solid evidence of job loss. That too has exited from headlines. The story of Rafale has also been eclipsed by the exploits of Mirage. For the last three months, the poll narrative had slipped away from the BJP.
The coming Lok Sabha polls promised to be the first general election to be fought on issues like the plight of farmers and the jobless youth. Pulwama and Balakot threaten to derail it. Mirage has replaced Mandir in the ‘five M’ — others being Modi, BJP’s election Machine, Money and Media — that the BJP is banking upon in this election. The Bharatiya Janata Party controls the narrative once again.
This need not continue until the day of voting. As I have argued, the BJP faces an uphill task in this election. It needs to retain the saturation level vote share that it obtained in the 2014 elections in the Hindi belt to capture power again. Once the political temperature is back to normal and politics returns to fundamentals, it is disadvantage BJP. It’s back to state level elections that do not favour the saffron party. Narendra Modi’s relative advantage over Congress president Rahul Gandhi has shrunk and become less of a decisive factor. Fatigue with the regime has set in. The ruling party stands to lose anywhere around 100 seats or more from the 282 seats that it won in the last election.
Unless, of course, Imran Khan or Rahul Gandhi decide otherwise.
Pakistan’s prime minister could gift this election to Narendra Modi by keeping the border tension alive. He knows that Jaish-e-Mohammed enjoys patronage from the army and the ISI of his regime. So, if this realisation or lack of international support makes him downplay or bury the issue after Balakot or go for a non-military response, then it would be hard for Mr Modi to keep the issue alive until the voting day. But it would not fit into Imran Khan’s cultivated Pathan image. More importantly, it would be hard for Pakistani army to live down this public snub. So, it would be tempting for the Pakistani establishment to retaliate in kind. This could set in motion further counter retaliation and could bring the subcontinent to the brink of war. That could mean elections in the midst of a war-like climate. Or postponement of elections. Both these possibilities work to Mr Modi’s advantage.
If that happens, much will depend on how the opposition tackles the situation. It can blunder and similarly do its part in gifting this election to Mr Modi. It can be complacent and allow the election to drift any which way. Or it can wrest the narrative back from Mr Modi.
As of now, the non-BJP parties tend to be on the backfoot on national security. It is not that they have nothing to claim. After all, India fought two of its most successful military campaigns – the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 – under the Congress governments. In contrast, the BJP has had a dubious record. Kargil operation was eventually a success, but it was necessitated by a security failure under the NDA government. The same government was involved in swapping highjacked hostages for Masood Azhar in Kandhar, the now JeM chief who is at the root of the current problem.
The Modi regime has little to show by way of on-ground improvement in national security. The real-life consequences of the “first” surgical strikes are still not clear. If anything, the number of border incursions, terror incidents and the loss of lives of armed forces as well as civilians has doubled or tripled after the much-publicised strikes in September 2016. There are many questions about security lapses in the Pulwama attack. And the government may be hard pressed to show that the Balakot attack actually destroyed an active terror camp, let alone eliminate terrorists. It is quite evident that this government is not interested in evolving a national consensus on such a grave matter. Rather, it wants to play a partisan role and use this to win the next election.
Yet the Congress finds itself in no place to take on the BJP on this issue. This is partly because the post-Independence elite has disinvested in nationalism and the progressive circles tend to be indifferent on the issue of national security. (I had argued this last week. That article received very sharp reactions from friends I respect deeply, perhaps because its self-criticism may have come across as a mistimed and partisan critique of ‘liberal’ politics.) Partly because Congress leaders of this generation, including Rahul Gandhi, are not perceived as the guardians of the national security.
If Rahul Gandhi wishes to wrest the narrative back, he would need to give up the temptation to score petty points against Mr Modi. The opposition simply cannot hope to prove itself more nationalist than the BJP. At least not before this election. Rahul Gandhi must diffuse this issue, put this in a basket of national consensus, and bring the focus of electoral contestation back to the economy. This is not going to be easy, as he takes on a consummate political player like Mr Modi. He does not have much time either.