The post-Pulwama effect on the 2019 Lok Sabha is a major concern for all political parties in the fray, as is evident from the Opposition’s single-minded focus on curbing the ruling party’s ‘air strike advantage’. Conversely, the BJP is attempting to paint the Opposition in unflattering, pro-Pakistan colours. The Opposition is at pains to point out that military action has never benefited a ruling party. This is debatable, as the Congress came back to power after the 1971 war with an additional 3 per cent vote and 70 seats.
In 1999, the BJP didn’t gain over its previous tally, although the NDA as a whole did, at the cost of the Congress. A sense of insecurity does tend to favour the incumbent regime, a notable example being the return of George Bush Jr after 9/11, but it dissipates quickly. The 2001 terrorist strike on Parliament, which claimed nine Indian lives, did not help the NDA in 2004.
In any event, Pakistan is taking cosmetic measures to appear unthreatening, primarily for the benefit of the world powers but also with an eye to the Indian electorate. The conventional view among political analysts is that the post-Pulwama impact will be confined to the north, centre and west and will offer only marginal leverage in the south, north-east, east and tribal states.
There is an emerging opinion, however, that nationalism has strengthened in recent years, to the point that regional parties, too, are jumping on the bandwagon. While most states have extended financial packages for the families of sons of the soil slain in Pulwama, Telengana made it a point to announce awards for all the 40 CRPF soldiers killed. Keeping the momentum going is a challenge for the BJP, in the face of Pakistan’s ostensible de-escalation.
The Opposition has proved a useful enabler in this respect. By questioning the veracity of the IAF strike on Balakot, on the basis of international media coverage, Opposition leaders have ensured that it continues to dominate the public discourse. It may have done better to shift the discourse to the BJP’s soft spots: the farm sector and unemployment. Despite a slew of populist measures, these issues still have public resonance.
The concerted effort to characterise the government as manipulative and untrustworthy and the PM as ‘feku’ has its hazards, because it willy-nilly reflects on the Indian Air Force. The rationale behind the strategy is doubtful, given that most voters react emotionally and have faith in the armed forces, thanks in part to Bollywood trope on the soldier as the ultimate patriot. The dominant view in the party is that sheer repetition will explode the Balakot “myth”, but not all Congressmen believe it will pay off.
Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh has taken a line different from that of his party. As a result, it is the one state where even the BJP acknowledges the Congress has outdone Prime Minister Modi and gained popularity post-Pulwama. In any case, its chief rival, the Shiromani Akali Dal, is riven by internal dissension.
In the east and northeast, nationalism will play a supporting role and the thrust will be on illegal immigration. A ‘Bharat versus Bangladesh’ narrative, as it were. The BJP has suffered in the northeast as a result of the Citizenship Bill, which was brought to the Rajya Sabha against the advice of local leaders in the northeast. However, it is confident that polarisation on the immigration issue will pay off. In West Bengal, it is hoping to achieve double digits for the first time.
The BJP has limited stakes in the south, other than Karnataka, but would naturally prefer that its existing and potential allies do better than the UPA. Tamil Nadu may well see a presidential-style face-off between the prime ministerial nominees of the AIADMK and DMK, that is, PM Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. The BJP feels this will work to the AIADMK’s advantage.
The impact of the post-Pulwama air strike depends on how effectively the NDA and UPA communicate their diametric messages to the electorate. The BJP has always been better at last mile connectivity, using its army of volunteers to reach out to voters and also has the first mover’s advantage on social media.
The BJP will doubtlessly flood the 30-plus crore WhatsApp users in India with tear-jerking, chest-thumping vines on Pulwama and Balakot. The Congress has proved that two can play the social media game, but countering an uber-nationalist campaign will be a tough job.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.