Just a few hours after the Indian Air Force struck terrorist bases across the Line of Control on February 26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at his aggressive best as he addressed an election rally in Churu, Rajasthan. Amid loud cheers from the audience, Modi harked back to the pledge that he had taken in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, and declared, “Saugandh mujhe hai is mitti ki, main desh nahi mitne dunga (I swear by the soil of this country that I will not allow this nation to perish).” He insisted that the nation was in safe hands.
While Modi did not make any direct reference to the retaliatory action to the Pulwama terrorist attack, the message was clear—that he has lived up to the reputation of being a strong and decisive leader who has the gumption to take bold measures, and that he is the only leader who can deal effectively with the challenges to the country’s security.
This was underlined by BJP president Amit Shah at a party event in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh, when he said that India could prove its might through air strikes only because of Modi. The government, he said, had shown zero tolerance to terrorists.
The political appropriation of the air strikes by Modi and the BJP is in no doubt, and the party realises that the scenario emerging from the terror attack in Pulwama has tremendous potential to alter the electoral narrative ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. With less than two months to the elections, the ruling party is expected to project Modi as a leader capable of taking bold actions to deal with challenges to national security, and a corollary of this would be that the opposition lacks a leader or a party with as strong a commitment towards national security. The emerging scenario is also in sync with the BJP’s claims of being a party committed to nationalistic ethos.
Modi and the BJP had appeared to be on the back foot after the losses in the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the November-December Assembly elections. It was felt that they were not in control of the political narrative and were on the defensive on issues such as unemployment, farmers’ crisis and corruption, especially the allegations of irregularities in the Rafale deal and letting loan defaulters like Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi leave the country. Brand Modi seemed to be fading, as the prime minister was being reminded by the opposition of the promises that he had made in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.
The terror strikes in Pulwama changed the scenario. Sensing the public sentiment, Modi engaged in tough talk in his public meetings, noting how he felt the same anger as his countrymen over the terrorist attack. He told the people that he had given a free hand to the armed forces and that the perpetrators of the Pulwama incident would have to pay a heavy price.
The opposition, aware that the political discourse post Pulwama has changed, finds itself in a tricky situation. A major challenge before the anti-Modi grouping is how to bring the focus back on issues such as unemployment, the agrarian crisis and Rafale. These issues were the mainstay of the narrative that was carefully constructed by these parties to take on Modi and the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls.
However, the opposition leaders agree that these issues will have to wait for some time, and that they will have to focus on the emerging security scenario and how the ruling dispensation deals with it. This was evident when Congress president Rahul Gandhi took a last-minute decision to postpone the meeting of the Congress Working Committee scheduled on February 28 in Ahmedabad. A rally in Adalaj, which was to follow the CWC meet, was also dropped. The two events were to mark the launch of the Congress’s campaign for the Lok Sabha polls, and the choice of venue was to provide it with the symbolism of taking on Modi on his home turf.
The concern over the changing political scenario was voiced by leaders in a meeting of opposition parties, which was held against the backdrop of the air strikes by India, the ensuing action by Pakistan and the capture of an IAF pilot by Pakistan. The meet, which was originally called to discuss a common minimum programme and a pre-poll alliance for the anti-Modi bloc, instead devoted three and a half hours to discuss the situation arising out of the Pulwama attack and the action taken by the government.
“Other than national security, the meeting discussed nothing else, unlike Rajnath Singh, the man responsible for national security, who was holding parleys in Chhattisgarh,” said Congress leader Randeep Surjewala. He was referring to Rajnath’s meeting with BJP workers in Chhattisgarh on February 27, a day on which tensions between India and Pakistan soared and the pilot was taken captive. Congress leaders also pointed out that while the CWC meeting was postponed, the prime minister was keen on creating a record for ‘the world’s largest videoconference’.
Most of the opposition leaders agreed that the government had to be held accountable for the lapses that led to the Pulwama attack, and that Modi and the ruling party should be called out for “politicisation” of the action taken by the armed forces. After prolonged discussion, they decided on a carefully worded joint statement which lauded the action taken by the IAF and praised the armed forces for their valour and bravery, but expressed their “deep anguish over the blatant politicisation” of the sacrifices made by the armed forces by leaders of the ruling party. The statement said national security must transcend narrow political considerations. The leaders observed that the prime minister had not convened an all party meeting as per the established practice in our democracy.
The parties agree that if Modi indulges in taking credit for the actions taken by the armed forces, then they will hold him responsible for the lapses that led to the terror attack in Pulwama. While it is premature to say that the Pulwama incident and its aftermath will have an impact on the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections, they have certainly changed the political atmosphere in the run up to the polls.