Elections in India are never followed with as much interest in Pakistan as is the case today, with both vernacular and English media in Pakistan joining the campaigns with their own interpretations of the ongoing electoral festival in the neighbourhood
It is election time in India. The campaigns are in full swing. The backdrop to the elections was too electrifying for the voters to be missed — a heinous terror attack on Indian security personnel in Lethpora, Pulwama, followed by Indian air strikes on terror camps in Balakot, Pakistan. A muscular India chose to break out of its self-imposed restraint to launch a counter terror strike deep within Pakistani territory, throwing the nuclear caution to wind, with a stupefied international community recognising Indian right to respond.
The media in both countries exchanged high-decibel invectives against each other as the de-escalation was choreographed by disparate efforts by friendly countries imposing pressure on Pakistan to behave. Raves and rants aside, the military and political leadership in Pakistan beat a hasty retreat. Some terror elements were brought under custody, others were asked to soften up. The agencies paused their plans. The temperatures began to drop. The worst was over, or was it?
Between India and Pakistan, there is no dearth of occasions for fighting a war by other means. The elections, perhaps, provided the context for exchange of barbs and banters. The airstrikes, called Surgical Strikes 2.0 by some, were subsequently used as a political football in India, with nationalism coming to the fore spontaneously and pouring out into the electoral campaigns through media channels competing with one another to nail Pakistan once and forever. An anti-Pakistan nationalism was perhaps too obvious to be missed. Those watching elections across the Radcliffe Line in Pakistan were not going to miss it.
The elections in India are never followed with as much interest in Pakistan as is the case today, with the campaign for the 17th Lok Sabha Elections going on in full swing in different parts of India. Both vernacular and English language media in Pakistan, print and electronic, have joined the campaigns with their own interpretations of the ongoing electoral festival in India.
There is selective coverage of election
related stories to cater to the taste of Pakistani onlooker: Starting from actor Aamir Khan responding to Prime Minister’s tweets and rumours of Salman Khan joining the Congress, to Hurriyat calling for boycott of elections, and Facebook asked by the Election Commissioner to remove Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman’s photographs.
Politicians from different parties seemed to look at the Indian elections from similar standpoints. There was uniform criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaigns. Rehman Malik of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) said the entire Indian public is now aware of the fact that their Prime Minister Modi wanted to use the Indian Army to win elections. He even went to the extent of saying it through Twitter that “PM Modi wanted to engineer a Bollywood like drama of war and he was making his video clips in Rajasthan while his operators were implementing Pulwama”.
Communalising the narrative, some other commentator wrote in The News, citing Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s speeches against the Mughals that “Hindutva groups had amplified their divisive narrative and attacks on Muslims and Muslim heritage”. Another observer wrote in The Nations, targeting Indian politicians as a whole: “Beating the drums of war is not a new technique for Indian politicians; it has become a tradition for the less popular politician to win the support of people, to incite the sentiment of nationalism and jingoism.” Prime Minister Modi, he warned, “could go to any extent for his seat”.
On April 7, addressing the media in Multan, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, came out with a wild allegation that India might attack Pakistan between April 16 and 20, citing intelligence reports. He went on to say that a Pulwama-like incident could be staged in Jammu and Kashmir to “justify Indian aggression”. He tried to sustain the fear of India in the minds of Pakistani people by saying that the war clouds were far from over and India might launch an attack any time during the elections. An unsuspecting media in Pakistan devoured such baseless assertion, flashing it in their headlines.
Qureshi went on to deliberately misinform his audience in Pakistan that there was a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (he misstated as Defence) where the Indian Prime Minister gave a free hand to his service chiefs to act against Pakistan to “take the escalation to a new level”. He even connected such action to the Indian elections and assured his audience that his Government was sensitising the international community about this impending threat from India and telling them to keep the “flashpoint of this region in mind”. He quietly lent a ‘nuclear dimension’ to it, all in the name of reviving international concerns about Kashmir.
Imran Khan followed suit on April 7. In his Twitter handle, he put out something which was rather unwarranted: “BJP’s attempt to win elections through whipping up war hysteria and false claims of downing a Pak F 16 has backfired with US Defence officials also confirming that no F16 was missing from Pakistan’s fleet.”
Commenting on the BJP manifesto, The Nation wrote editorially on April 9 that removal of Article 35A would be “disastrous”, quoting politicians from Kashmir and regarded it as a move to annex Kashmir! It cautioned the BJP for such reckless policies and said that the party “must pay heed to these challenges. Under its reign, the Valley has become a burning battleground and with this move they intend to recklessly escalate the conflict even further”.
There are words of caution as well. Urging both countries to scale down their rhetoric and engage each other, a commentator wrote in Daily Times that the polls suggested that “Prime Minister Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a slight lead”. However, “no matter who wins, it will be essential for the winner to embrace peace rather than war”, to avoid conflict and “potential annihilation of large segments of the populations of both nations”. “A state of peaceful co-existence would establish the platform for India and Pakistan to work on prosperity for their people,” the commentator argued.
Yet another writer in the same newspaper stated that “Indians ratcheted up the recent tensions to improve the electoral prospects of Modi led BJP”, however, he urged both countries to shun the path of hostility and engage in a battle “for human security” which included “quest for clean drinking water, functioning healthcare system, high quality education, cheap public transport, and a level playing field for public entrepreneurship”. Both India and Pakistan, he argued, “must avoid the Thucydides’ trap where in case of war both nations lose and millions die, in favour of peace and development”.
There is a general sense of alarm hovering in the air. The Pakistani media argues that “although Indian PM Modi is exploiting this tension to win the General Elections, Pakistan can never be sure about India’s intentions”.
There were even reports of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leaders, who were once rooting for India-Pakistan ties, chastising Imran Khan’s Government for releasing the Indian pilot, Abhinandan, in “haste” and for extending a positive gesture to India by opening Kartarpur border as India would always remain ungrateful. What was the need of taking the decision to open Kartarpur border when the Kashmir issue was still unresolved, some asked.
The weekly Friday Times carried an article by Muhammad Tahir Iqbal on March 29, where Modi’s election strategy was discussed in detail. The writer argued that after five years, the BJP had not been able to deliver on many of the promises it made to the people of India and therefore it lost elections in three Indian States. Realising the party’s declining popularity, the party used the Pulwama incident to toe a hard-line on Pakistan to boost its popularity and electoral fortunes, and this strategy has paid off, he wrote.
The vernacular media’s coverage of India in the wake of the elections has been on expected lines, too. One can notice a clear emphasis on Kashmir in the narrative being circulated by writers in the print media. Most commentators alluded to an impending danger of India launching an attack and to avoid such a situation, “there is a need to build pressure on India to stop behaving irresponsibly. Pakistan has to protect its territory, establish a China made Air Defence System on its Eastern border with India and lace the border with land-to-air LY-80 missiles and units of IBIS 150 Radar for surveillance”. Simultaneously, Pakistan should continue to uphold the cause of the Kashmiris despite which Government comes to power in New Delhi after the elections, it was stated.
Some commentators in the Urdu media gave a free run to their communal perspective and said that the Hindus behaved well when they were kept under subjugation by Muslims and the British. However, as soon as they regained power, they made life hell for the Muslims, Dalits and other minorities. During the Muslim rule, one of the commentators asserted, there were no anti-Hindu riots, but after assuming power, the Hindus “carried out more than 5,000 anti-Muslims riots within a span of 71 years and lowered the status of Muslims even below the cow”. Editorially, the daily Jang wrote that Pakistan had to be extremely cautious because the Modi Government had created a war-like environment and may resort to even war in the backdrop of the election campaigns in India.
The experts and analysts in the electronic media cutting across political parties and ideological persuasions were also seen to be toeing an anti-Modi line, blaming it on his Right-wing Government for villainising Pakistan for policy lapses of the Government. Some of them, in the talk shows, would ridicule Indian politicians for raising the bogey of Pakistan to win votes.
Looking away from excessive focus on Prime Minister Modi and his party, there were also comments on the Congress party and its leader Rahul Gandhi. There were some who said that Amethi is to the Gandhis what Lyari used to be for the Bhuttos. In the last elections, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari lost Lyari but saved his face by winning from Larkana. In India, too, the commentator noted that Rahul’s decision to contest from Kerala was welcome because there were chances of his losing Amethi in the face of an aggressive Smriti Irani making an all-out effort to win it this time. Appreciating Rahul’s campaign, Daily Times wrote editorially that his tone “has toughened in recent years and more people now see him as an aggressive leader capable of countering Modi’s Hindutva politics”. There is thus a hope that the Opposition led by the Congress party may see the back of the BJP in the elections and there might be strong undercurrents at work to upset the BJP’s calculations, some averred.
There is also a quiet acknowledgement by various commentators on the way the Election Commission of India was going about its job in India and a comparison was made in a newspaper about the gargantuan task of catering for more than 814.5 million voters (in 2014) with a larger percentage of attendance (66.38 per cent) vis-à-vis the total number of voters in Pakistan, which was only 105.96 million with a lower percentage of attendance (51.8 per cent).
Elections or no elections, there is a sense of fear and alarm at the surprise attack that India carried out in response to the terror attacks in Pulwama. There is a fear that the Modi Government would return to power with a more hardline stand vis-à-vis Pakistan and create more problems for Pakistan which is labouring under an acute financial crisis. There is also concern in certain quarters that Pakistan’s strategy of using terror as an instrument of its policy towards India ought to be revised to avert crises like the one that dragged both countries to a near-nuclear war after Pulwama. A vocal majority of commentators in Pakistan, however, endorsed the policy of extending all possible help to the Kashmiri “freedom fighters” — a euphemism for terrorists funded, equipped, and trained by the Pakistani establishment. This contradiction remains unresolved in Pakistan, given its sustained antipathy towards India.
It is surprising for some, perhaps natural for others, not to find any sane voice in Pakistan, barring a few, to understand the Indian concerns about terror being perpetrated by Pakistan-based terror outfits for decades now. Inured by terror strikes at home, many Pakistanis do not quite understand the genuine sense of anger and anxiety caused by cross-border terror strikes among the people in India. In a way, the Right-wing turn in Indian politics can be attributed to popular frustration with the tame reaction of previous Governments to unrepentant sponsorship of terror by Pakistan for years together.
After a long time perhaps, Pakistan has emerged as an important factor influencing voters’ choices in India, signifying widespread frustration with Pakistan’s strategy of bleeding India through incessant terror strikes, unattributable to the Pakistan’s military, whose unseen hands enable this vast constituency of armed grouped being readied by Pakistan to take on India in an asymmetric low-cost warfare over the years. That this frustration has been translated into useful political capital now indicates the larger trend in Indian politics favouring strong leadership that can take decisive policy measures to deal with perennial threats sapping the energy of the state, which could be alternatively used to bring peace and prosperity to Indians.
The writer is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator, South Asia Centre at IDSA, New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the institution he serves in