Times change, politicians don’t, voters do. Rewind to 1984 and the ad campaign that became the signature of the Congress’s election appeal then: scorpions, snakes and barbed wires; Indians were warned of the dangers of ‘Sikh terrorism’ in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, in a direct stereotyping of an entire community. Twenty-four years later, the blood-soaked images were back again. Only this time it was the BJP that was hoping to climb to power on the back of the frightening images of 26/11. In 1984, the Congress won a three-fourths majority in the Lok Sabha. In 2008, the BJP lost Delhi, the city that went to the polls less than 72 hours after the Mumbai terror attack. It also lost Rajasthan that voted a week later.
What has changed between then and now? Why hasn’t terror worked as a vote-catching issue this time? Many complex explanations have been offered, but simply put: the Indian voter has grown up. In 1984, terrorism was a distinctly new phenomenon on the country’s map. Mrs Gandhi’s death had shocked the nation. Shock quickly translated into sympathy for a grieving First Family of the Congress. Voting for the Congress became a way of offering homage to a larger-than-life Prime Minister and her son who promised to take forward her legacy. In a sense, it was a vote based on pure emotion. A nation felt connected to the Nehru-Gandhi family and wanted to be part of their personal tragedy. Moreover, we were scared and were looking for someone to provide a calming influence. A fresh-faced Rajiv Gandhi seemed to have that appeal.
Twenty-four years later, an entirely new range of emotions have surfaced in the context of terror. Yes, there is sorrow at what happened in Mumbai; there is fear too. But there is also now anger and cynicism in equal measure. The anger is directed against the political class in general; the cynicism, too, is non-partisan. The consistent failure of governments — be they UPA or NDA — to provide physical security to the aam admi in the face of terror has become a source of endless frustration. If it’s the NCP-Congress alliance in Maharashtra, it’s the BJP that was ruling Gujarat and Rajasthan when serial blasts occurred there. Could any political party justifiably claim that they have licked terror and have a monopoly on the issue?
The BJP with its consistent advocacy of tougher anti-terror laws may have believed that it had the edge in the voter’s mind when it came to national security. Unfortunately, the BJP’s campaign against terror has become an ideological war revolving around identity politics that has weakened the party’s credentials to fight the highly motivated international terrorist. The manner in which some BJP leaders used the arrest of Sadhvi Pragya Singh in the Malegaon blasts investigations to try and whip up ‘Hindu rage’ was clearly out of tune with the citizen’s desire to see a united front against terror in all forms. A section of the Congress and the Samajwadi Party had attempted a similar strategy of ‘minority appeasement’ after the Batla House encounter. It only seemed to add to voter disenchantment with the blatant politicisation of terror and attempt to polarise the voter on religious lines.
Nothing exemplified this better than the public reaction after Narendra Modi’s visit to the Taj hotel even while the siege of Mumbai was on. As the macho political face of the BJP, Modi symbolised the party’s anti-terror plank. His appeal was persuasive. He was seen as the one leader with the guts to be politically incorrect on the terror debate. And yet, the manner in which Modi chose to ratchet up the political rhetoric while NSG commandos were battling to save the hostages angered even some of his staunch supporters. By offering a monetary reward to the family of slain police officer Hemant Karkare, he complicated matters even further. After all, only days earlier, at election speeches in Madhya Pradesh, Modi had virtually accused Karkare of ‘torturing’ Sadhvi Pragya. From being cast as a desh-drohi one day, to being celebrated as a desh-bhakt martyr the very next, the attitude of the Sangh parivar to Karkare denied them the moral high ground in the war on terror. Interestingly, Uma Bharti, the leader who was, perhaps, the most vociferous in her support of the Malegaon accused, has been virtually wiped out in the elections.
Does this mean that terror and national security will not be issues in general elections 2009? Of course they will. If the relief in the Congress ranks at surviving December 2008 descends into complacency, the party could be in for a rude wake-up call. In rural Rajasthan, for instance, the war on poverty, not on terror, was the critical issue. But in Mumbai next year, the image of Vilasrao Deshmukh taking Ram Gopal Verma on a guided tour of the Taj will haunt the ruling alliance there and could come to symbolise the failure to take on the challenge posed by 21st century terror seriously enough.
The key takeaway from the assembly election results is that the Indian voter now places a premium on good governance at the local level. Sheila Dikshit was endorsed yet again because the Delhi voter saw in her a hard-working, accessible Dadima-like figure committed to making the national capital a better place to live in. Her victory doesn’t suggest an endorsement of the UPA’s policies at the Centre. Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh won in their respective states not because they were seen as Hindutva warriors but because they had shown a certain commitment to welfarist schemes and development programmes.
Strong anti-terror measures must be seen then as part of a wider governance plank. If the UPA demonstrates an unwillingness to push ahead with a concrete plan of action against terror, the anger of the Indian citizen, especially in urban areas, will boil over. If the NDA continues to see the war on terror only through the prism of a particular community, it too will suffer. While the Indian voter wants bijli-sadak-paani, he also wants suraksha. But security that is provided through tangible measures like police reform and revamping intelligence-gathering systems — not through a high-decibel debate that generates excitement in TV studios, but yields little on the ground.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-Chief, IBN Network