How Pulwama shaped 2019
If politics is considered a sport, then elections are India’s most cherished pastime. Constructing popular narratives about who won and who lost an electoral contest is an equal opportunity endeavour — pursued by the aam aadmi, voluble neta, and brainy analyst with equal vigour. Once an election narrative takes hold, it can be hard to dislodge.
Take, for instance, the standard account of the 2019 general election. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) entered that year on an uncertain footing, facing the headwinds of a sinking economy, a spate of governance lapses, and electoral defeats in three assemblies across the Hindi heartland. The party’s frontrunner status was never really in doubt, but the size and scale of its mandate was.
On February 14, a suicide bomber rammed into a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, killing 40 jawans and bringing national security to the fore in a way few could have foreseen. The shock of Pulwama — and India’s subsequent strike on a terrorist camp in Balakot — fuelled a “rally around the flag” mentality that played naturally to the strengths of the BJP, a party widely viewed as more hawkish on Pakistan and less willing to exercise so-called “strategic restraint”.
This narrative undeniably captures a large part of reality. The national conversation shifted immediately; opinion surveys on voter priorities found that jobs and the economy ceded ground to national security. For the first time in recent memory, foreign policy made the improbable jump from “elite” to “mass” issue. This shift clearly redounded to the benefit of Narendra Modi and the BJP.
Yet, while there is compelling evidence that voters rallied around the BJP in the wake of a historic, election eve security crisis, we know relatively little about who, in fact, did the rallying. One important source of variation is exposure to the crisis itself — specifically, were those most directly impacted by the crisis the most likely to rally in support of Modi? Or were those at greatest distance the ones caught up in a nationalist fervour?
Our study investigates these questions in the pivotal state of Uttar Pradesh using granular, booth-level electoral returns and data on the home villages of the slain Pulwama jawans. In the wake of the February attacks, tens of thousands of residents attended large funeral processions that returned the jawans’ remains to their homes, paying their respects and expressing patriotic sentiments. The processions were marked by their displays of intense nationalist sentiment and hawkishness toward Pakistan— factors which one might expect to have benefited the BJP at the ballot box.
To investigate this, we estimate the effects of exposure to these processions, which highlighted the severity of the attacks, on the BJP’s vote share. What we find is a macro-micro paradox. At the macro-level, Indians across the country rallied behind the BJP in the wake of Pulwama and the subsequent retaliatory strike at Balakot. But at a micro-level, the BJP’s vote share decreases with proximity to the funeral processions in constituencies where the party is the incumbent.
Counterintuitively, the mobilisation of collective anger after the crisis dampened —rather than augmented — rallying in favour of the BJP. Consider this stark finding. Villages two kilometres from a Pulwama funeral procession saw a nearly six percentage point reduction in the BJP’s vote share compared to villages 20 km away. In other words, vote swings in favour of the BJP were systematically weaker near the epicentres of the Pulwama funeral processions than in villages mere kilometres away.
The preponderance of supporting evidence suggests that this is not because voters decried the government for insufficient retaliation against Pakistan or criticised the BJP for exploiting casualties for political gain, but because voters most exposed to social commemoration of the attacks assigned greater responsibility to the government for allowing Pulwama to happen in the first place.
If the BJP won the 2019 poll in a landslide, despite these adverse local-level consequences, are the latter inconsequential? We do not believe so.
Our results suggest that rallying effects are more tenuous than previously thought. Had 400 soldiers been killed at Pulwama instead of 40, the commemoration of these losses may have mobilised far more citizens to question the government rather than to swell the ranks of BJP supporters.
Furthermore, terrorism and conflict can have significant political consequences in places where national security is considered primarily an issue of “elite” concern — a finding that is at odds with conventional wisdom. It is commonly believed that the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the 1999 Kargil War, both of which preceded general elections by mere months, did not materially impact on voting behaviour. Pulwama suggests this is not an ironclad rule.
Perhaps most consequentially, these results indicate that even nationalist governments face a real trade-off in exploiting security crises for political leverage. Mobilising collective anger after an attack could benefit the government through a “rally around the flag” effect, but this is by no means a failsafe strategy. Playing up national security crises may backfire, even for the most secure nationalist governments.
Jamie Hintson is a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford University. Milan Vaishnav is senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC
The views expressed are personal