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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019

With air strikes, PM Modi locks his political script for Lok Sabha polls

For days and weeks to come, there will be finely combed analysis on what the Indian Air Force did in the early hours of February 26.

india Updated: Feb 27, 2019 11:51 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the National Cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, February 22, 2019.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the National Cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, February 22, 2019. (REUTERS FILE PHOTO)
         

For days and weeks to come, there will be finely combed analysis on what the Indian Air Force did in the early hours of February 26. There will be claims and counter-claims from India and Pakistan about the nature, scale and success of the operation. The world will keenly wait to see if there is an escalatory spiral. International relations scholars will ask if this marks the end of Pakistan’s ability to deploy nuclear blackmail to wage an asymetrical war with India.

But in the theatre that means most to political parties, the strikes, although they may not have been motivated by political considerations (the mood across the country was one that was demanding retaliation for the Pulwama terror attack), have given one side the clear edge on national security.

With less than 50 days to go before the elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi have locked in their political script. This script, coming in the wake of a challenging political climate, will have three key inter-related ingredients — of a “decisive” and “muscular” leader who can be trusted; of a “nationalist” party willing to defend Indian interests; and of a “stronger” India which has changed the rules of engagement with its arch-rival.

Watch: India is in safe hands, says PM Modi after IAF strikes in Balakot

To be sure, neither the Pulwama attack nor India’s response to it should be politicised , but the nature of politics anywhere in the world is that attacks and strikes such as these will be used in campaigns. Two caveats are essential at the outset.

Indian general elections are deeply complex. It is often a sum of state elections. Each state has its own political dynamic. Regional parties play a huge role in many of these states. Local factors — of candidates, caste, social engineering, alliances and arithmetic, religious polarisation — matter. So does the economic narrative. The nature of the campaign is also key in determining the outcome. And few elections in India have been won or lost because of a single factor.

This is also a fluid diplomatic and military situation. Pakistan has threatened a response. And it is not clear what form it will take, and what India will do next. At the same time, the Pulwama terror attack and now the cross-border air response gives a key talking point for the BJP in the elections and leaves the Opposition scrambling to find an appropriate response.

Here is the context. After the setback in the state polls last year, the BJP was staring at a rather drastic reduction of its 2014 tally. The Modi “hawa” was seen to be ebbing. The Congress revival was the big story. Rahul Gandhi had come into his own, with sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra making an entry into politics. Key opposition alliances had got stitched, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. The issue of jobs and agrarian distress undermined the government’s narrative of progress. The BJP’s state governments were underperforming too, adding an extra layer of anti-incumbency. And while losses in north, west and central India seemed inevitable, corresponding gains in the east and south were not apparent.

When presented with this scenario, BJP leaders often turned to two formulations. The first was how this will be a presidential election.They had Modi. The Opposition had no leader. And the second defence rested on how this narrative underestimated the tremendous work done in creation of rural assets -- housing, toilets, roads, electrification -- and in the structural reforms.

But a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader admitted candidly last month, “Modi has always believed that you need an emotional factor in elections. That emotional factor is missing so far.” The air strikes gives the BJP precisely this emotional factor.

Over the past 10 days, there has been both spontaneous outrage and organised campaigns to channel the upsurge of nationalist sentiment. Modi himself ratcheted up expectations at his public meetings — emphasising how angry India was, how the terrorists had made a mistake, how he had given a free hand to the forces to respond, and how there will be a price to pay. BJP leaders were deputed to attend funerals and visit the families of martyrs. The party will do everything in the next few weeks to advertise these air strikes as proof of Modi’s decisiveness.

This, then, will be used to reinforce the BJP’s commitment to national security, laced with the subtext that the opposition parties have always been weak on the question. The BJP will repeat its assertions that the Congress kept quiet after 26/11, while this government responded after both Uri and Pulwama. It will claim to have called Pakistan’s bluff and made sponsoring terror more costly for them. And it will suggest in campaign speeches that this is an India which faces threats; it needs a strong leader epitomised by Modi and a strong party and not a chaotic leaderless coalition of disparate forces. The BJP is feeling vulnerable in its stronghold of Hindi heartland — and it hopes this message will resonate the loudest exactly in this area.

Whether this works or not will only be known on result day. But the Opposition has a clear challenge. It knows the national mood was for strong action after Pulwama. It has praised the air force. But non-BJP parties feel stuck, for they cannot be seen as either congratulating or criticising the government. The former will allow Modi to monopolise credit; the latter will allow the BJP to accuse the Opposition of politicising the attacks even as it does so on its own quite systematically. Rahul Gandhi played a smart tactical card by appointing Lt Gen (retd) DS Hooda to head a task force on national security. But the Opposition now needs to take a call — of whether to engage on national security issues at all where the BJP has the edge in public imagination or cede that space and seek to turn the conversation back to domestic economic issues where it may have an edge.

The air strikes may or may not alter the outcome of the elections entirely. But they will change the nature of the political conversation and shape the campaign for sure. This suits the BJP. The Opposition will have to find innovative ways to wrest back the initiative.

First Published: Feb 27, 2019 06:20 IST