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Lok Sabha election 2019: Why Balakot may not be a game-changer

Amid widespread anguish in the country, the Indian Air Force carried out what were described as non-military, pre-emptive strikes at a terror camp in Pakistani territory on February 26, 2019.

lok sabha elections Updated: Mar 14, 2019 14:14 IST
Roshan Kishore
Roshan Kishore
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Balakot,Balakot strike,Lok Sabha elections
People celebrate IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman’s release by Pakistan authorities, at the Attari-Wagah border near Amritsar. Several commentators believe that air strikes on a Pakistani terror base have given the BJP a decisive edge over its opponents, with debates on national security taking centre stage.(PTI File Photo)

Until February 14, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s 2019 prospects did not look very good. In December 2018 it lost elections in three key Hindi belt states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – to the Congress. A Hindustan Times analysis showed that the BJP’s losses in these three states cut across regional, caste and occupational divide (see for details). The BJP swept the 2013 elections in these states. In fact, it was this election cycle which heralded the beginning of the Narendra Modi wave, which catapulted the BJP to a majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

However, the political narrative seems to have changed after a suicide terror attack killed 40 CRPF personnel in Jammu and Kashmir on February 14, 2019. Amid widespread anguish in the country, the Indian Air Force carried out what were described as non-military, pre-emptive strikes at a terror camp in Pakistani territory on February 26, 2019. A lot of commentators believe that this military action has given the BJP a decisive edge vis-à-vis its opponents, as voters might prioritise national security over the prevailing economic disenchantment which had hurt the BJP in the previous election cycle.

Watch: Opinion I Balakot, Rafale or Jobs – what will be 2019 decider?

The political developments after the air strikes in Balakot also suggest that the BJP is looking to create a polarisation on the issue. Questions by the Opposition trying to seek proof of exact damage and casualty in the air strikes have been portrayed as unpatriotic and targeted at questioning the credibility of the armed forces.

The BJP’s larger design of trying to portray the Opposition as anti-national has been commented upon by political scientists earlier as well. For example, Suhas Palshikar wrote in an August 2018 Economic and Political Weekly article, “Of course, from the beginning, Hindutva has claimed to be coterminous with nationalism. But since he appeared on the national scene, [Narendra] Modi has spoken less about Hindutva and more about nationalism. This tactical shift has helped him generate enormous support for not only his personal leadership but also the overarching nationalist narrative — a narrative that encompasses development, national power and Hindutva.”

Academic arguments aside, the question is whether such a polarisation could help the BJP in the forthcoming general elections. This author had argued in an earlier piece that there is mixed evidence on whether military conflicts impact political outcomes in India ( Would 2019 be different from earlier times, as the BJP tries to convert the elections into a polarisation between nationalist and “anti-national” forces?

Looking at what could perhaps be described as India’s two most polarised elections — 1993 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh and 2002 assembly election in Gujarat — could offer some insights on what could happen. The 1993 Uttar Pradesh elections happened in the aftermath of demolition of the Babri mosque.

The 2002 Gujarat polls were held months after the communal riots in Gujarat. In both these elections, the BJP was the incumbent party and was seen has having forced a polarisation by the Opposition.

The BJP increased its previous vote share in both these elections. This suggests that polarisation worked in its favour. However, its seat share went down in Uttar Pradesh while it increased in Gujarat.

The former happened because the BJP had to face an alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh. In other words, a rise in polarisation behind the BJP might or might not create a counter-polarisation behind the Opposition.

See chart 1: BJP’s seat share and vote share in Uttar Pradesh 1993 and Gujarat 2002

Herein lies an important lesson on why even a favourable polarisation in terms of vote share might or might not work for a party in terms of seats. In a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, it is extremely difficult to predict change in seat shares for a given change in vote share. This can be seen from chart 2, which gives the ratio of percentage point change in seat shares for the Congress and the BJP for one percentage point change in vote share.

See chart 2: Ratio of change in seat share and vote share for Congress and BJP

Last, but not the least, is the question of what was the level of support which the BJP and its opponents had before the Pulwama terror attack. The electoral impact of polarisation and counter-polarisation, which might happen in the aftermath of Pulwama, will critically depend on these base levels.

First Published: Mar 14, 2019 07:18 IST