How the Opposition Can Wrest Back the Narrative, Post Balakot
It has been caught underprepared once, and time is limited
The Indian Air Force strike allegedly at a Jaish-e-Mohammed training facility in Balakot, Pakistan has given the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party an opportunity to showcase its muscular, masculine nationalist credentials and tough, decisive leadership besides providing relief from inconvenient headlines. How far the spring since in the BJP’s step carries it in the approaching poll sweepstakes depends on how well the opposition responds to the changed game.
There is an argument that the opposition should not bite the BJP’s bait on national security issues. Three reasons have been cited for this:
First, that engaging on these issues will only give the BJP’s friends in the media the ammunition to prolong a war hysteria that would otherwise be difficult to sustain.
Second, popular opinion is already polarised and the underlying anti-BJP mood among a large section of the electorate has not shifted significantly in recent weeks.
Third, the BJP’s attempts to extract political mileage from soldiers’ valour and sacrifices, if overplayed, will evoke popular disgust and eventually backfire.
There is a modicum of truth in all this; nevertheless an opposition radio silence on national security issues may not be advisable. The opposition is duty bound to interrogate the government on the intelligence failures that led to the tragedy in Pulwama and others before that. Not to dwell on such lapses amounts to betraying the interests of the soldier and the nation.
The BJP has demonstrated a capacity for upping the ante and keeping things on the boil, and these could well nudge floating voters in desired directions. It may not result in the kind of BJP victory – over 300 seats – its sympathisers are hoping for but could give the party a leg up in a close contest.
Foregrounding, once again, the range of issues on which it had the NDA government on the backfoot – agrarian distress, unemployment and nonexistent jobs, the demonetisation fiasco and the GST impact, allegations of high-level corruption and cronyism, the subversion of state institutions… – is a clear and crucial task for the opposition.
It won’t be easy though, with the BJP likely to duck behind soldiers once again, or accuse the opposition of playing into anti-national hands by scrutinising the government.
The opposition’s challenge then is to foreground the economic and social issues that till recently occupied popular concern, without abandoning national security issues – even while the BJP’s formidable propaganda machinery plays up the latter in a bid to shut out the first.
An option for the opposition is to ‘go local’ – geographically and demographically – with economic and social issues.
Large sections of the electorate – farmers, the youth, women, Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, small businesses, and defence personnel (yes, them too) – have been at the receiving end of this government’s misplaced priorities. An imaginative linking of their woes to the neglects and actions of the government has the potential to recapture the narrative.
More so if the tall, unmet promises of 2014 are recalled.
A thrust on the local was needed earlier too, as the emotive issues of national pride and muscular leadership held together the BJP’s pitch. They are needed more now that a fresh and concerted attempt to paper over government failures and incompetence unfolds perilously close to a general election, and in the backdrop of a military operation.
Of course, the local must aggregate to the national in appropriate fora but the edifice on which it is founded must show, for credence and for punch. The atrocities perpetrated on caste and religious minorities, the starving of agriculture, tribal displacement, the scuttling of small businesses and lost jobs cannot be just footnotes.
To keep up a critical national security discourse in parallel would for the opposition mean a tightrope walk, given the BJP’s skills at playing the victim card. It suggests the need for marshalling those with credibility and credentials – ex-armed forces and security experts – to front that aspect of the discourse.
Sane, politically neutral voices, of which there are several, need to be amplified as well.
Then there is the question of solutions. Much has been said about the need for a constructive and pragmatic narrative from the opposition and, again, this need becomes all the more dire in the present circumstances.
Ideas such as a universal basic income guarantee and farm loan waivers have been floated, but now is the time to unveil a set of weighty proposals, and cohere them into an agenda and pitch that goes beyond fault-finding, and affords the people of India a clear view of what lies beyond the tunnel.
Going local, crafting an enlightened and responsive agenda for the future, and engaging with national security issues with the mix of delicacy and force they merit, in the limited time on hand, will push the opposition to its limits. But the 2019 parliamentary elections have come to acquire huge import.
Amidst all this, it is also important that the opposition prepare for the calculated release of new information on the Pulwama-Balakot-Nowshera episode and other such ‘cards’.
Scenario-building is essential to poll strategy. The opposition has been caught underprepared once, despite predictions that any escalation of tension in Kashmir and along the borders close to the elections would bolster the BJP’s chances. A second failure at such anticipation is best avoided.