The Pulwama terror attack has certainly diverted the attention from earlier issues like Rafale, jobs and agriculture crisis. The Opposition faces the challenge of not only changing the national security narrative but also the BJP’s communicative strategy
After the Pulwama terror attack on February 14 and India’s subsequent retaliation to it, poll issues seem to have changed overnight. It is clear now that issues like the Rafale scam, joblessness, rural and farm crisis, among others have taken a back seat as the terror narrative is giving an advantage to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Whether the issue will help them garner votes or not is a different question altogether.
However, the party at the helm often stands benefited when dealing with a war-like situation because of the surcharged atmosphere in the country. A muscular policy is what they want. This happened during the 1971 Bangladesh war when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi won kudos all around.
The planning for the coup took almost from April to December, 1971. It was such a closely kept secret that even US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not get a hint about it when he met Indira Gandhi in July 1971. US President Richard Nixon was so upset that he called Indira Gandhi “a witch and a bitch”.
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, too, got the nation’s support during the Kargil war and his party, the BJP, won the Lok Sabha poll in 1999; although it did not increase the party’s seat tally. The BJP went all-out to propagate the Kargil victory; though it was known that de-escalation came only after the intervention of the then US President, Bill Clinton, who was keen to avert a war between the two nuclear powers.
Now, it is the turn of Prime Minister Modi to claim victory; although it is clear that both India and Pakistan have cooled down after pressure from the US and other international powers, who advised both countries to avert any kind of escalation. The BJP believes that Modi’s chances of returning to power are much more after the Balakot airstrikes as he has been able to send an effective signal to the country that he is a strong leader.
Prior to Pulwama, Modi was in a vulnerable position politically, particularly after the major debacle in the three Hindi heartland States of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh last December. The election results sent the message clear that people were slowly getting disenchanted with the Modi Government for not fulfilling the tall promises on job creation and agrarian crisis. Anti-incumbency had to be countered.
However, all of these have changed after Pulwama. Earlier, the BJP was thinking of making the building of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya as the main poll issue. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which had been banking on ‘temple’ plus ‘cow’ narrative to lure the voters, has now changed its focus to prioritise terrorism.
On February 22, at an RSS internal meeting, it re-designed the campaign to focus on the need for a stable Government to deal with terror.
Second, the BJP is attempting at invoking nationalism after the attack, making use of the simmering anger against Pakistan within the country. With the Balakot airstrikes, Prime Minister Modi has locked his political script for the 2019 polls. He had used the ‘Mia Musharraf’ narrative even during his 2002 Gujarat campaign successfully to polarise the electorate. The party is propagating the achievements of the strong Prime Minister and his muscular policy.
Third, though the Opposition, including the Congress, came out in support of the Government soon after the Pulwama attack, they began to criticise Prime Minister Modi within days. Now, both the BJP and the Opposition have been accusing each other of politicising the Pulwama issue in view of the elections. Around 21 opposition parties last week issued a statement that: “National security must transcend narrow political considerations.”
The Opposition has been stumped by the BJP’s security narrative and has planned its own strategy to counter it. Congress insiders claim that the Opposition has more ammunition to fire, most of them created by the BJP itself.
The first step is to raise doubts about the airstrike itself. The Congress’ narrative is to shred Modi’s claims into pieces and question the intelligence failure, as acknowledged by Jammu & Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik.
Already, multiple voices have questioned Modi’s security strategy. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has questioned the timing of the Pulwama attack, asking whether the Government wanted to go to war when the Lok Sabha election was round the corner. Other Opposition leaders have joined the chorus.
The Opposition believes that it would be difficult for Prime Minister Modi and the BJP to sustain the momentum for the next two months and it will have enough time to hit out.
Therefore, other issues like Rafale could come to the forefront sooner than later. But it is a challenge for the Opposition how to change the national security narrative so soon and bring back the local and domestic issues and failures of the Modi Government.
The point is: Questioning the BJP’s national security narrative would be risky. The Opposition has to find other ways of restoring the primacy of other issues like jobs. Whose narrative works will best be known when the ballot boxes open. But the Opposition faces a tough challenge of countering the communicative strategy of the BJP.
(The writer is a senior political commentator and syndicated columnist)