The decision of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Wednesday to finally designate Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, thereby subjecting him to strident restrictions, is undoubtedly a major diplomatic victory for India. But, coming as it does in the midst of India’s Lok Sabha polls where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assiduously tried to project himself as a Prime Minister who can decisively crack down on Pakistan’s terror apparatus, the electoral fallout of the UNSC decision cannot be emphasised enough.
For PM Modi and the BJP, the UNSC decision is clearly a shot in the arm. The Lok Sabha polls have so far seen the Congress party and its co-travellers in the Opposition camp desperately trying to swerve the election rhetoric to livelihood issues, convinced that this was the Achilles Heel of Modi and the BJP. The UNSC decision allows the BJP to bolster its narrative of nationalist pride.
Shortly after Syed Akbaruddin, India’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN tweeted the news of Azhar being finally designated as a terrorist on the UNSC’s sanctions list, the BJP reacted on Twitter hailing the “historic decision” as an accomplishment of the Modi government, emphasising its poll slogan of ‘Modi Hai Toh Mumkin Hai’.
Union finance minister Arun Jaitley said, “India stands vindicated. Masood Azhar is now a global terrorist. India is in safe hands. This marks a high point for the Prime Minister’s foreign policy”.
The UNSC decision and the manner in which the BJP promptly went all out to capitalise it is not good news for the Opposition, particularly the Congress party. The Congress media cell chief Randeep Singh Surjewala has put out a two-page statement which, while terming the UN’s decision as a “welcome step” tried to question the Modi government’s delay in pursuing the Azhar case.
“We expected the Modi government to act at a greater speed in pursuing the declaration of Masood Azhar, but after the agenda less visit of PM Modi to China (Wuhan summit) they did not push for this case with China in the entire period of 2018. Several precious lives in terror attacks like Pulwama could have been avoided if Modi government had pushed international community, including China, to agree to declaration of Masood Azhar as international terrorist,” the statement said.
The Congress’s mention of the recent Pulwama attack, which is still fresh in public memory, in its statement is important since the UN’s decision to designate Azhar as a terrorist reportedly emanate from his acts of terror that preceded the election of the Modi government in May 2014. The UN has not referred to Azhar’s role in the Pulwama attack nor to his alleged role in fanning terror in Kashmir. The Congress can take some credit for the UN’s decision by claiming that it was the UPA government that had initiated the process of having Azhar put on the UN Sanctions List back in 2009 in wake of the Mumbai terror attacks.
But these are not issues that the electorate can be expected to be bothered about. For the voter the messaging would be far more matter-of-fact – that Azhar has been acknowledged as a terrorist by the UNSC members, including China, and that this has happened during the Modi government. And it is here that the Congress and the Opposition need to worry about the electoral fallout of a diplomatic success.
A senior Congress leader, requesting anonymity, told Outlook, “The decision couldn’t have come at a worse time for us. The three phases of polling that remain will see elections in states where the Congress is directly pitted against the BJP on a majority of seats. Most of the constituencies where polling is yet to take place fall in the Hindi heartland states where terrorism is an emotive election issue. Modi will go to town claiming that it is his global standing and his pressure on countries like US, and more significantly China, that got Azhar blacklisted by the UN. We can say that we started the process in 2009 but it won’t have the same effect as Modi saying that it was his government that got the results.”
The seats where polling is yet to happen fall in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Bengal, Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. In 2014, the BJP or its allies had swept Rajasthan, Himachal, Delhi and Jharkhand while it bagged a majority of seats in UP, Bihar, MP and Punjab. With the possible exception of J&K, Bengal and Jharkhand, terrorism remains a mainstream election issue in all these states where the BJP was, until now, expected to lose a significant chunk of the seats it had won in 2014 due to anti-incumbency and the Modi government’s failure on issues like agrarian distress and job creation.
After the Balakot air strikes that happened in wake of the Pulwama terror attacks, several opinion polls had suggested that Modi’s popularity was on an upswing since in the Hindi heartland states after having plummeted in the preceding months due to the Congress-led Opposition’s persistent campaign on issues like unemployment and the Centre’s apathy towards farmer distress. PM Modi, expectedly, made the Balakot air strikes a poll issue, with the Election Commission looking the other side on the possible violation of the poll code that the Prime Minister was ostensibly engaging in rally after rally.
The Congress party’s manifesto promise of a NYAY scheme had intended to capitalise on the anger among the poor and rural households, hoping that this would steer the poll rhetoric away from the post-Balakot narrative of the BJP. But the BJP didn’t abandon its plank. Instead, it added communally charged issues to it.
With over 150 seats – nearly 80 per cent of which are currently held by the BJP – still left for polling, it is expected that Azhar will now prominently feature in PM Modi’s poll speeches. Nearly half of these 150 seats – those in Rajasthan, MP, Punjab, Haryana, Jharkhand, Himachal – the BJP and Congress are in a straight contest.
The Congress party is wary of Modi using the UN decision to bolster his claim that despite recurring terror attacks during the 10-year UPA rule, no concrete steps were taken to isolate Azhar but that after five years of his government’s efforts, the Pakistani terrorist was now blacklisted by the world.
A party leader said that Wednesday's Maoist attack in Maharashtra's Gadhchiroli or the EC's decision to reject the candidature of former BSF jawan Tej Bahadur, the SP-BSP joint candidate against Modi from Varanasi, on a flimsy ground ere issues that the Congress was hoping to cash in on in the days ahead to corner the BJP. "I doubt anyone will be interested to hear that now given that Masood Azhar is expected make his debut in Modi's election speeches from tomorrow," he said.