A universal pattern in times of war is for normal, everyday politics to freeze. Combatants in that arena cease their usual hostilities and join their collective forces in the service of a higher cause. But then, as the famous aphorism by Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz goes, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”. And these are not usual times in India. In the tense aftermath of IAF fighter jets flying across the LoC for their dramatic pre-dawn strike on February 26, both government and opposition, in action and word, exhibited a strong awareness of how it would or could affect the coming elections. Whether or not hostilities on the border skim closer to or extend beyond India’s election calendar—the formal opening ceremony is slated for this week, when the EC is to announce the poll dates—be sure that it has affected the electoral rhetoric for good.
Judge it on both sides. Just hours after the air strike, a triumphant Prime Minister Narendra Modi swore upon India’s soil and said “the nation is in safe hands”. He was addressing a rally of ex-servicemen at Churu, Rajasthan, a state the BJP lost to the Congress in the recent assembly polls. With pictures of the 40 CRPF personnel martyred in Pulwama forming the backdrop, Modi once again recited the poem that he first did in 2014, soon after becoming PM. The mood was upbeat as chants of “Modi, Modi” rent the air. The PM himself, prudently, avoided a direct reference to the air strike—stopping short of overtly politicising it. No such sense of propriety or protocol bound former Karnataka CM B.S. Yediyurappa. The air strike will help the BJP mop up 22 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka, he explained with a touching lack of artifice.
The good people in the Opposition trenches—generals and infantrymen alike—did not know what hit them either. With great pains, they had just raised a modest crescendo when they found themselves bushwhacked by what they dreaded the most: war clouds. Such a situation almost inevitably helps an incumbent government soak up public sentiment. So, from the Congress to the other parties, none of them knew whether to lunge or to duck. Ashen-faced and sullen, they initially offered “full support” to the Modi regime, and waited for an opportune time to retract it. That came soon enough—the sombre moment following Pakistan’s retaliation and the capture of an IAF officer—but that’s small consolation. They will have to live with the fact that Pulwama/Balakot have entered the electoral discourse now and the nationalistic turn to rhetoric has left them with a depleted quiver of arrows, and the BJP with more wind in its sail.
Will it escalate? Will there be more strikes? Or will both sides go back content, with a bagful of exploits to sell to their domestic constituencies? War, even a “controlled war”, is difficult to script beyond a point, but one thing is irreversible. It has been demonstrated that escalation is possible, and New Delhi will not wilfully eschew that path, as it used to. The phrase “New India” has found its way into the lexicon of the BJP leaders—it’s defined by a tectonic shift in its rules of engagements with the arch-enemy. A willingness to transgress old boundaries and retaliate. And that, along with the narrative of nationalism, only helps PM Modi burnish his image as a “decisive” leader. Defence analysts can debate the material gains (or lack thereof) of this new militaristic vein till the cows come home, but Modi will now always be seen as—and market himself as—the prime minister who did not shy away from ordering the post-Uri surgical strikes, and now, the IAF air strikes. Propitiously enough, one came before the 2016 UP assembly poll and now this is a big election eve too.
A degree of protocol still controls the narrative. Neither the ruling BJP nor the Opposition overtly correlate the controlled war to the general elections. Just like Modi has made no direct allusions yet, the Opposition too duly offered their solidarity to the armed forces and the government. Congress president Rahul Gandhi was among the first ones to react to the air strikes. “I salute the pilots of the IAF,” was his brief tweet, steering clear of politics. That avoidance was, of course, political in itself. It helped him avoid the dubious position of having to lavish words of praise on Modi. Not that the PM was running short of it. Credit (as well as blame) flowed without let up or hindrance on Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp, the latter being the channel through which a lot of ‘public discourse’ penetrates the hinterland now. BJP leaders too made sure Modi remains centrestage—whether through subliminal messaging or unmitigated praise.
Soon after the air strike, BJP president Amit Shah took to Twitter to salute the valour of the armed forces, keeping the political only as an implied text. “Today’s strong action shows the will and resolve of a New India. Our New India will not spare any acts of terror and their perpetrators and patrons,” he tweeted. Addressing a party event in Ghazipur later that day, Shah gave subtle allusiveness a go-by and became a wee more direct, saying “the entire country is celebrating Diwali” and urging the gathering to “light a lamp with a pledge to re-elect Modi ji”.
Workers of the BJP fete the air strikes at a war memorial in Amritsar.
I&B minister Rajyavardhan Rathore wove the two strands together with less inhibition as he tweeted, “Today’s air strikes are a clear message to every terrorist: we will get you. Extremely proud of our armed forces and their matchless valour. This is a decisive, New India under PM Modi ji’s leadership. We will do what is required for the safety of our people.” The crux of the argument lay in a comparison with the past, especially 26/11. He reminded people through a video message that the armed forces were ready to retaliate at that point too but the then government was not. “Ek milawati sarkaar khud ki raksha nahi kar sakti, desh ki raksha kya karegi (a mixed-up regime can’t even save itself, how can it save the nation),” Rathore said. The word ‘milawati’ for coalition—implying impure or contaminated in ordinary Hindi—is a new weapon in the BJP’s arsenal, and the reference is to the Manmohan Singh regime that chose to refrain from a military retaliation after Mumbai. That choice may have been well-considered and wilfully made in the prevailing context, debatable yet not necessarily a sign of weakness, but offering that spin comes easy now. “Aaj majboot sarkaar hai,” said the I&B minister, stressing on the idea of ‘strength’.
Military views often back that. Air Chief Marshal (retired) Fali Homi Major confirms to Outlook that the IAF was ready to strike following 26/11 but the clearance never came. Heading the IAF at the time, he says, they had recommended punitive air strikes on terrorist camps, complete with a plan to the government, but never got a response—nor a reason for not striking. “Why the government of the day does not give the go-ahead is never told to us. There could be diplomatic issues,” the former air chief surmises. “We had the capability then and we have it now. It happened now because of political will,” he says of the first cross-border air strike by India in five decades.
Use of air power is seen as an escalatory measure, something traditionally used last. That’s why the IAF had not been deployed since 1971—even during Kargil, late PM Atal Behari Vajpayee did not allow fighter planes to cross the LoC. Perhaps, that war could have ended earlier had air power been used, says the ex-air chief. “It can be said in hindsight but then again it depends upon the ground situation and the information with the government at that time,” he adds.
The leaders of 21 Opposition parties, who met on February 27, while expressing solidarity with the armed forces, took the opportunity to criticise the Modi regime with both hands too, but it was clear they were on the backfoot. The government had politicised the strikes and failed to convene an all-party meeting “as per established practice,” they said. Releasing a joint statement after the meeting, they said “national security must transcend narrow political considerations”. The chagrin is understandable. Till a few days ago, these parties were on a roll. The SP-BSP alliance had been sealed in UP, West Bengal and Delhi saw joint stage shows, and the entry of Priyanka Gandhi had added to the Congress’s revival story. Political pundits were predicting a possible hung Parliament with a much reduced seatshare for the BJP. The latter had just lost Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to the Congress; farmers’ distress and unemployment dominated the lexicon as ‘Modi magic’ appeared to wane.
However, Pulwama saw the return of the quintessential Modi. While he verbalised the government’s intent, the official machinery went to work on a plan that utilised his willingness to change the rules of engagement. “Use of air power conventionally meant escalation but the PM did not think twice before making it the first choice. The strategy was innovative. Its description as a non-military pre-emptive strike put Pakistan in a bind,” says a security official.
A Congress leader, not wanting to be named, rues that it is unfortunate the way saffron leaders are milking the delicate “near war-like situation” for political gains. “Statements like the one made by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat are meant to create a jingoistic atmosphere to benefit the BJP. It is not correct,” he tells Outlook. Bhagwat had said the Balakot bombing “is the true terhaveen shraadh of the 40 martyrs of Pulwama” as it had come on the 13th day. The BJP sees nothing wrong in the statement or even in using the situation for political gain. “It’s all in national interest,” says a senior BJP leader. “Modi is the only leader who could have done it. There was widespread anger after Pulwama. The surgical strikes had set the benchmark, so the government could not have ignored such a provocation. He has proven himself to be a real chowkidar,” he says, adding that further escalation is possible. “Pakistan has seen our army action after Uri and IAF after Pulwama. Perhaps, next they can see our navy in action.”