Will the Current Indian Nationalist Upsurge Help Modi Electorally?
Pakistan’s riposte the very next day took away the shine from the Balakot raid.
The question in every Indian’s mind now is: Will the current nationalist upsurge triggered by the terrorist carnage in Pulwama in Kashmir and the subsequent air action against Pakistan in February, help Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the parliamentary elections in April-May this year?
The question is difficult to answer because no scientific poll has been done post-Pulwama.
However, there is perceptible and fairly widespread anger, especially in North India, against Pakistan, which the traditionally anti-Pakistan BJP can exploit best.
The carnage in Pulwama was perpetrated by a Pakistan-based terrorist group, the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) though the suicide bomber himself was an Indian Kashmiri. The Pulwama incident was also unprecedented in as much as the casualties were the highest in recent years – 41 paramilitary personnel killed in one go.
With calls for revenge mounting, the Modi government had no option but to retaliate against Pakistan. And it was felt that the revenge had to be more dramatic than the ground-level “surgical strike” carried out after the terrorist attack on the Uri army camp in 2016.
Therefore, an air raid to destroy a JeM base was chosen as a viable and safer option which would at the same time send a strong message to Pakistan that India is ready to escalate the conflict to inflict an unacceptable level of damage.
Sure enough, the February 26 air-raid against a JeM camp in Balakot did burnish Modi’s image as a “no nonsense leader”. The attacking planes came back unchallenged and it was claimed that the JeM camp was decimated and a “large number” of terrorists were killed. The BJP chief Amit Shah put the figure at 250 killed and others jacked it up to 300.
But Pakistan’s riposte the very next day took away the shine from the Balakot raid. India lost one MiG-21 Bison in a dog fight and a pilot who was captured. India said it shot down a Pakistani F-16 but gave no proof of that. New Delhi’s claims about destroying the JeM camp in Balakot suffered a jolt after an on-the-spot report by Reuters said that only some trees were destroyed and a crow was killed.
Be that as it may, Modi used the air raid and the nationalist upsurge which followed, to defend himself on the controversial deal with Dassault of France to buy 36 Rafale jets at an allegedly inflated price. He said that if only India had Rafales it could have easily crushed the Pakistan Air Force. He pointed out that the Congress is trying its best to scuttle the deal with unfounded charges of corruption.
He projected his macho image by announcing that a factory to make the latest Kalashnikov rifle for the army will be set up. And to derive electoral advantage, he said that the factory will be set up in Amethi, the electoral constituency of opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
Meanwhile, Indian electronic and social media went ballistic with pro-Modi outpourings and venom against the opposition parties and those in the citizenry speaking against war or calling for a more sober approach to the basic issues underlying the conflict with Pakistan, such as the Kashmir issue. They were instantaneously dubbed anti-national and asked to migrate to Pakistan.
Encouragement for this was provided by Modi himself as had done in the past. During the last Gujarat State elections, Modi openly accused former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of conspiring with the Pakistan Ambassador to defeat the BJP in his State.
In the current context, the Modi government rejected the demand for proof of the damage and casualties inflicted on the Balakot camp. In an angry retort, Modi asked: “ I want to know from the opposition Congress and its partners why they are making statements that are benefiting the enemies.”
A BJP leader and former Karnataka Chief Minister Yediyurappa said happily that the BJP’s tally in the next parliamentary elections would go up significantly because of the air strikes.
While in the initial stages the opposition was tongue tied and genuinely upset due to the enormity of the tragedy in Pulwama, it soon got its bearings and began to ask inconvenient questions.
“300 terrorists dead, yes or no?” Navjot Singh Sidhu, a leader of the Congress party in Punjab, asked in a tweet: “Were you uprooting terrorists or trees? Was it an election gimmick? Deceit possesses our land in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. Stop politicizing the army, it is as sacred as the state.”
Congress leader Sanjay Jha said: “It is deeply regrettable and politically immoral on the part of the BJP to make political capital out of military endeavors during cross-border tensions with Pakistan. PM Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah are singularly responsible for lowering the political discourse in our country.”
Mehbooba Mufti, a former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir said: “ Calling those who question the veracity of Balakot strikes anti-national is baffling. However, the opposition should not fall into this trap of changing the entire election discourse from pressing issues to these strikes.”
Akhilesh Yadav, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh tweeted to his nine million followers: "Every day we get news of the brave martyrdom of our Jawans while smiling BJP politicians join their funeral processions."
Former Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told Gulf News: “The prime minister and his party men are using the tragedy of Pulwama in which more than 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed to promote their own political agenda. It is the biggest disservice they are doing to the nation.”
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee said Modi ignored intelligence inputs on the attack so he could play politics later.
“Where were you Mr Modi when the Pulwama attack took place? You knew that an attack was imminent. The government already had intelligence inputs. Yet why were the jawans not airlifted? Why were proper checks not done and why weren’t the roads thoroughly sanitized? Why did you push them to the brink of death? So that you could play politics ahead of the elections? There can be no politics over the blood of our jawans,” Banerjee asserted.
Karnataka Congress President Dinesh Gundu Rao pointed out that the number of terrorist attacks had increased in the last five years under the Modi government. “This clearly shows that it has miserably failed to contain militancy.”
Navjot Singh recalled that it was a BJP government which released JeM leader Masood Azhar from prison in 1999 to end the highjacking an Indian airliner. And Karnataka Congress leader T Khader wondered why Modi made an impromptu visit to Pakistan to enjoy a cup of tea with his counterpart Nawaz Sharif when he knew Pakistan’s true colors.
While, Modi and the BJP hope that the tension with arch enemy Pakistan will ensure their victory in the coming elections, the Congress party hopes to paint the BJP government as an bumbling one which could not even sustain its self-proclaimed macho character.
However, the principal opposition electoral plank is the all- round failure of the BJP on the economic front. Poor job generation and farmer suicides, the burdens thrust on the Small and medium industries by the demonetization of 85 % of the currency in circulation and the poorly designed Good and Services Tax collection system are being exploited to the full.
Reuters says that manufacturing’s share in the GDP has risen just 1.5% in the last three years to stand at 18 percent. Investors complain that higher taxes, lack of efficient infrastructure and regulatory red tape make India a difficult place to work.
Inflows of foreign direct investment has slowed, dropping by 7% to US$ 33.5 billion in the nine months between April and December 2018 indicating serious flaws in the regulatory system.