Political opinions today, soaked in fake news and formulated through forwards on WhatsApp, are not too difficult to read and analyse. With each new development in the political scenario of India, endless and unidirectional conversations on social media guide the masses towards a specific perception of reality. One major development, in recent times, that has shaken political narratives across the nation is the Pulwama terror attack and India’s rigorous response towards it.
From removing Pakistan’s status as the “most favoured nation”, to Indian air strikes in the Pakistani territory of Balakot in order to annihilate the terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), India has used both soft and hard power to mould international sentiments and domestic opinions in its favour. At the centre of this raging storm stands the “muscular and robust” Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. His government has loudly banged on the doors of the Paris-headquartered Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to blacklist Pakistan. This was on done on the grounds of state-sponsored terrorism, and was supported by the United Nations Security Council. Social media was flooded with love and admiration for Prime Minister Modi when the success of the Balakot airstrikes was announced. The following days, replete with cross border fires and violations of the Line of Control—the de facto border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir—were closely watched by the Indian public. Whoever may have won or lost on the battlefield, it seemed that PM Modi emerged victorious. Even though Pakistan extended an olive branch by ensuring the safe return of a captured Indian Air Force pilot, the Indian masses applauded the bravado of Modi.
With the polar contest dominating the majority of the history of Indo-Pak relations, such a reaction from the general Indian public is hardly surprising. Indians have long felt that their elected leadership shies away from taking a hard stance towards terrorism sponsored by Pakistan and separatist terror outfits in Jammu & Kashmir. With PM Modi’s frequent international trips, the “surgical strike” in 2016 and the Balakot air-strikes, India has now positioned itself better in the global community. But the real question is whether such a hard stance on Pakistan will strike a chord with Indian voters.
Undoubtedly, a distinct feature of the growing hostilities between India and Pakistan is the proximity of this crisis to the Indian general elections of 2019. Historically, foreign policy has not played a very significant role in determining electoral results in India. Economic, political and social issues have a far stronger impact on the minds of voters than foreign policy issues. Nonetheless, election manifestos of political parties have always given great importance to their stances towards Pakistan. For instance, the election manifesto of the Indian National Congress, for 2014, emphasised the improvement of relations with Pakistan while holding it accountable for the 26/11 attacks. Similarly, the BJP committed to addressing the demands of refugees from PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir).
Now, as the next general election draws closer, many expect PM Modi to make national security a plank for his electoral campaign. One can already see gaudy BJP posters showing PM Modi holding guns, flanked by soldiers, fighter jets and orange explosions on billboards and streets. A reputed Indian television journalist and author, Barkha Dutt, even tweeted, “Really uncomfortable with pictures of soldiers on election posters and podiums. This should be banned. Surely, the uniform is sullied by vote gathering in its name.”
Over the last year, Modi’s popularity has diminished significantly. In the past, strong “saffron waves” had washed over the nation making it impossible to believe that PM Modi could ever face critical challenges. However, the reports on increasing unemployment numbers, growing farmer distress, policy measures like demonetisation, and a more organised Opposition, is giving the BJP a hard time. The BJP was also defeated in five state elections in 2018. However, the major losses were in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which were a significant part of the “Hindi Belt”—the BJP’s traditional vote base.
Now, as Mr Modi is trying to chart a victory dominated by the victories of the armed forces, two alternatives are possible:
The urban and middle-class voters, whose votes greatly hinge on India’s status in the world, are swooned by Modi’s strong stances and decide to vote him back to power.
Social and economic issues continue to dominate electoral politics and lead to a genuine battle between the incumbent and the Opposition.
Of course, the ideal situation for the saffron party will be the first one. But using national security and the armed forces to further a party’s electoral motives seems lowly. Even then, a BJP leader, Mr BS Yeddyurappa didn’t shy away from saying that the Balakot airstrikes could help BJP win 22 seats in the Indian state of Karnataka. The gaffe by the former Chief Minister of Karnataka was immediately brought into scrutiny by the media and Opposition. Thus, the BJP Federal Minister and former Armed Forces Chief, Mr VK Singh, had to step in with a damage control kit. He issued a statement saying that the government’s decision to carry out air strikes was to “safeguard our nation and ensure the safety of our citizens, and not to win a few seats”.
Bhanu Joshi, a political scientist at Brown University feels that although foreign policy generally doesn’t drive electoral results in India, Indo-Pak relations have always struck a chord with voters, and the Modi administration can monetise on the image of a vigorous, robust and fearless leader. Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, echoes a similar sentiment. However, he also feels that even though the Modi-Shah duo will attempt to change the narrative of their campaign, for the rural constituencies and village communities, tangible economic growth will always play a more important role. If the Indo-Pak strife will swing anyone, it will be in the urban constituencies.
At this stage, the Indian air strikes have made a strong statement. India is refusing to back down. So far, the only beneficiary in this war is the BJP, as it is moulding a renewed jingoistic fervour in the Indian voter. There is still a minor possibility of an escalation of this volatile situation between the nuclear-armed states. Amid an intensifying war of words and action between the two, the BJP hopes that this fervour can help them sway every voter who might have become disillusioned in the last five years.
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