It’s advantage Modi, but…
Considering that previous governments had backed away from a military response to terrorist provocations from Pakistan — notably in November, 2008, when a Lashkar-e-Taiba suicide squad attacked Mumbai — the raid by Indian jets on a Jaish-e-Muhammed terror camp in Pakistan has shown that India has dropped its policy of strategic restraint.
Since the change has taken place under the Prime Minister’s leadership, it has reinforced Narendra Modi’s macho credentials.
The political fallout of this image is immense. At one stroke, it has relegated to the background all the domestic issues which were impeding the (BJP) political advancement of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Instead, it has added lustre to the party’s claim of being able to provide a “majboot sarkar” (strong government) in contrast to the opposition’s “majboor” (helpless) combine, which will send the country to the ICU (intensive care unit), as the Prime Minister has said in a triumphal vein.
No one expressed this jubilant mood better than B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s leader in Karnataka, who said that the latest surgical strike (there was a limited one in 2016) will enable the party to win 22 of the 28 parliamentary seats in the state.
Although he has since said that he has been quoted out of context after being told not to use the military’s achievement for political purposes, few will doubt that the BJP will continue to articulate its claims to be a party of nationalists and doers as the polling days approach.
The opposition, therefore, is in a bind. It now realizes that the issues of unemployment, agrarian distress, low investments or Rafale, which constituted its main talking points, will no longer make the kind of impact which they earlier did as the country basks in the sunshine of military glory and diplomatic success.
The gains for Indian diplomacy are evident from the way that the international community, including Pakistan’s close friends like China and Saudi Arabia, leant heavily on Islamabad to ensure that the military situation did not go out of hand.
As for the BJP, it no longer has any need to look for an emotive issue like the Ram temple to boost its electoral position as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was doing on its behalf a few months ago.
Nor does the BJP have to introduce quotas for targeted groups over and above the 50 per cent limit set by the Supreme Court to woo a new group of voters.
In its present smug, celebratory mood, the BJP may even tone down some of its strident criticism of the Congress’s first family as Modi has been doing during virtually all his speeches, including the one on the inauguration of the war memorial in Delhi.
For the scion of the first family, Rahul Gandhi, the challenge has become much bigger than what he may have envisaged when the Congress won three assembly elections and the other national opposition parties won a series of by-elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
In view of the fact that Rahul is gradually assuming the No 1 position in the non-BJP camp, as was evident from his role as the spokesman of the 21 opposition parties which criticized the politicisation of the conflict by the BJP, a presidential-style contest between him and Modi is becoming almost inevitable.
But before the face-off reaches such a stage, the opposition will have to tread extremely carefully because the political ecosystem is currently saturated with the BJP’s longstanding mantra of success — muscular nationalism.
The opposition may be occasionally helped by the kind of gaffe made by Yeddyurappa, which has been picked up by the Tehreek-e-Insaf, Pakistan’s ruling party, which has mockingly said that the “war” was about the 22 seats after all.
But the opposition has to undertake a sophisticated appraisal of the scene to make it clear that military success is distinct from economic success and that a nation cannot claim to be strong unless it is equally resilient and tough in both the fields.
The BJP, on its part, will be making a mistake if it believes that nothing can now stop its victory march. The Indian voter is not only one of the most politically savvy in the world, he also has a wide vision which takes into consideration various factors such as caste, the candidate’s background and the record of his party. He also has durable ideological commitments which are not swayed by passing events.
So, even if it is “Advantage Modi” at present, the results are far from being sealed and delivered in the BJP’s favour. It is also worth noting that there is little evidence of a surge in Modi’s favour as in 2014 when the Congress was mired in scams and policy paralysis.
The touchstone will be the crowds which Modi and Rahul will attract at their election rallies. Modi’s will undoubtedly be bigger, as they usually are, but it is from Rahul’s meetings that inferences can be drawn about the way the wind is blowing.