The campaign for the 2019 general election has witnessed an unprecedented degree of bitterness between the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but the credit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi got from the masses - cutting across caste and regional divides - for giving a tough reply to Pakistan seemed to have overshadowed other performance issues raised by the opposition.
In India, the popular appeal of the message of strength that Modi had sent to Pakistan by ordering the Balakot air strike - in a prompt response to the terrorist attack on CRPF at Pulwama - could not be overestimated. The Indians had looked for a 'muscular' reply to Pakistan all these years and it was left to Modi to take precisely that kind of action.
The Congress, by creating an impression that it was not prepared to acknowledge the 'decisiveness' of the regime on a matter of prime national concern, only came off as being 'insensitive' to national security. The masses do not make a difference between the valorous Air Force that carried out the strike and a strong government that ordered it. The Balakot episode, in fact, pushed national security to the top of the election agenda - an upshot of that is the heightening of public awareness in India about the country's security challenges.
In this context an injurious fallout from the opposition stand on Balakot was that somewhere the election rhetoric on this matter produced communal overtones which, unsurprisingly, prompted the Pakistan leadership to try to meddle in the domestic politics of India. A sharp lesson this has produced for our political class is that they must learn to put the debate on national security and defence above party politics.
Many leaders of political parties in the Kashmir Valley also pitched against Prime Minister Modi on the issues relating to Kashmir in a manner that made them look like advocates of Pakistan's claim on Kashmir. An average Indian saw in this a case of extreme communalism compromising national interests. It is going to take some time - post poll - to repair the damage to India's body politic caused by the polarisation of the campaign around the Muslim votes.
Balakot and its bearing on India's Pakistan policy in the context of terrorism was projected by Modi detractors in a manner that put the opposition, the Muslim minority and Pakistan seemingly on the same side of the fence. This could become extremely harmful to Indian politics in the long range and should therefore, have been totally avoided.
In a democracy, national security must be seen to be above party politics and this means that there should be complete convergence among the contesting groups on identification of threats - though not necessarily on how best these were handled by the ruling dispensation. The opposition has been wishy-washy about the cross border terrorism inflicted by Pakistan on India. In today's world, all citizens must be aware of the national security scenario to be able to judge how the regime had dealt with it.
Being well informed is the new mandate for success in any sphere now and since we live in an unsafe world one could not claim to be well informed if he or she was not meaningfully aware of the threats caused to the security of the nation from outside and from within as also of the state of security of one's immediate environs. The Constitution of India defines the responsibility of the State in protecting the nation and goes on to specify the duties of a citizen in helping to safeguard national security and internal stability - the Preamble itself calls for preserving the unity and integrity of the nation while Art. 51A enjoins upon all citizens to promote the spirit of patriotism and uphold the unity of India.
There is a strong case for carrying security education in an appropriate form to the schools and colleges so that the youth, by the time they became political adults in terms of acquiring voting right, are able to exercise considered option. Such an education would be aimed at helping the youth to become vigilant citizens, who would also be better informed about exercising due discretion in handling information flowing to them or putting information on social media.
Today ignorance is not bliss anymore and fraudulent communication and 'entrapment' resorted to by adversaries on social media have to be guarded against in one's own interest. The run-up to this General Election has been full of 'fake' news and social media content that was violative of the law. Also, it has to be understood that right to privacy does not mean one can use the cyber medium, which is public space, in any manner one likes and then expect others not to access what has been put out there.
Users should be aware that social media is not a free-for-all platform but a medium regulated by the rule of law. Its misuse is legally punishable. Security education of the youth would help the latter to appreciate that any illegal activity on social media leaves electronic footprints which can be used for identifying the real user, that they should not put out anything on social media on impulse or in an emotional state of mind and that they should not overshare personal information under any wrong notion of privacy.
The youth should have an early exposure to an understanding of the security set-up that exists in India and the importance of Intelligence agencies that work for national security. They should have an idea of the damage caused to the nation on account of data theft and a grasp of why Information Warfare had emerged as the new facet of combat.
Today the strength of democracy is substantially dependent on how developed is the role of people as the watchdog for the nation. In the era of the threat of terrorism facing the country people with a sharpened awareness and observation that could note suspicious movements and unusual transactions, are a great asset since sleeper cells and enemy agents operate out of lanes and neighbourhoods. The two prime functions of a democratic state - development and security - require a close involvement of all of its citizens.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)