Analysis: Can national security issues impact electoral outcomes?
An analysis of how ruling parties have fared in polls after military conflicts shows mixed results
There is little doubt that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will seek political mileage from the air strikes the Indian Air Force conducted in Pakistani territory on February 26 after the killing of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in Jammu and Kashmir 12 days prior.
Statements by senior BJP leaders, including the Prime Minister and the party president Amit Shah, are already suggesting that the September 2016 surgical strikes across the Line of Control and last month’s air strikes under the BJP-led government are a marked departure from the policy followed by previous dispensations in dealing with Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
Will this bring significant political gains to the BJP in the forthcoming elections? No one can answer the question. Electoral outcomes, especially in a parliamentary democracy, depend on a multitude of factors.
There is no way of ascertaining whether national security issues dominate over other factors. One way to approach the question is to look at how parties in power have fared in elections after important military conflicts.
India has fought four fullscale wars since independence: in 1948 against Pakistan, 1962 against China, 1965 against Pakistan and 1971 against Pakistan. There was a limited military conflict after the Pakistani intrusion into Kargil in 1999.
Except the 1962 war against China, India has not lost any of these conflicts. However, there does not seem to have been any direct relation between the outcome of these wars and the fortunes of the ruling party. India won (1965) and lost (1962) a war between the 1962 and 1967 general elections. The Congress, which was the ruling party in both the elections, lost both in terms of vote share and seat share between these elections. However, in the 1971 elections, the party almost recovered the losses it logged between the 1962 and 1967 polls.
The 1971 war led to the creation of Bangladesh from what was East Pakistan and was one of the biggest strategic achievements for India. Indira Gandhi achieved this feat within months of her election in March 1971. This goodwill, however, was frittered away with the imposition of emergency in 1975, and the Congress slumped to its worst (until then) defeat in the elections held in 1977.
The Kargil war was fought under a BJP-led government and the country went to polls within months of India’s military success in reclaiming its territory in Kargil. While the BJP came back to power in 1999, its seat tally remained the same in the 1998 and 1999 elections.
To be sure, India’s response to terror attacks is a different ball game from direct military conflicts, as opting for a military response is a matter of choice for the government. For example, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Manmohan Singh governments decided against overt military attacks after the terror attack on India’s parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Vajpayee lost the 2004 elections while the Congress was re-elected in the 2009 polls.
Even after the 2016 surgical strikes, the BJP’s electoral performance has been a mixed bag. It achieved a big victory in the first round of elections after the surgical strikes, wresting Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand from its opponents and retaining Goa despite winning a fewer number of seats. However, its performance dipped in subsequent elections. The BJP retained Gujarat with a lower number of seats in 2017, and in the following year, it could not from a government in Karnataka despite emerging as the single largest party in the assembly and lost the three Hindi belt states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
There is another way to look at how the recent air strikes in Pakistan could affect politics in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. The BJP will try to use the strikes to attract voters who may not be its core supporters but can swing to its side on matters of national security. This might also trigger better opposition unity on the ground to pre-empt such consolidation behind the BJP. The joint statement by 21 opposition parties lauding the armed forces and criticising the BJP for politicising the action is an indication of such thinking in the anti-BJP camp. Which one of these outdoes the other would only be known when the election results are out.