Two years after the Balakot strike it is still not clear whether the Indian Air Force raid against a suspected Jaish-e-Mohammad camp deep inside Pakistani territory caused significant damage to the terrorist infrastructure across the border.
With recent media reports suggesting that the Jaish-e-Mohammed has once again resumed training terrorists at Balakot, the military and strategic gains India sought from the dramatic foray may not have been fulfilled. As a matter of fact, far from being cowed by the Balakot strike Pakistan’s ISI is reported to have not only kept infiltrating terrorists into Kashmir but also more recently fomenting trouble in neighbouring Punjab instigating a renewed Khalistani movement there.
Balakot Strike Boosted BJP’s Image Just Before Elections
On the other hand, the Balakot strike has been a stunning success for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP in the domestic political arena, where the daring air raid defying Pakistani territorial sovereignty continues to titillate public imagination even two years after the event.
There is little doubt that the drastic retaliation by Modi government to the terrorist killings in Pulwama hugely boosted the image of the BJP at a crucial time on the eve of a national election.
Especially when the ruling party was seeking a second term with a fairly poor record of governance and when a resurgent Opposition was showing signs of getting its act together.
The sheer histrionics of the military engagement and its aftermath—suitably amplified and orchestrated by the government’s media chorus leaders—effectively hijacked the electoral agenda substantially contributing to an even bigger mandate for the ruling party than in the previous election.
By conjuring the Balakot strike as a spectacular coup against Pakistan the Modi regime assumed a muscular larger than life image that to a large extent camouflaged its many flaws in governance to a public thrilled at a decisive reprisal against the traditional enemy.
At the same time the audacious cross-border air raid completely demoralised and confused the Opposition on the eve of elections. By quibbling over the military success of the operation Opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi convinced no one but only lent credibility to the BJP’s propaganda mills debunking them as “anti-national”.
BJP Continues to Benefit from Balakot Action
Yet, it would be wrong to see the Balakot raid as just a onetime phenomenon catapulting the BJP to a famous victory in the last Lok Sabha elections. Over the past two years, the BJP has continued to successfully milk propaganda advantage from the military strike deep into Pakistan as some kind of badge of honour that ensures the ruling party’s claim to the nationalist space in the country.
Indeed, this is one of the main reasons why despite triumphing over the BJP in many state assembly polls fought on local issues the Opposition looks so inadequate when it comes to challenging Modi at a national level.
In many ways, the phenomenal success of the Balakot strike as a propaganda weapon in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls has changed the approach of the BJP to politics.
For instance, it has turned far more belligerent in Kashmir ramming through controversial legislation that tossed aside past measures to mollify the Muslim majority in the Valley. Similar aggressive measures were adopted in pushing the Citizenship Amendment Act and now doggedly persisting with new farm laws despite the widespread protests by sections of the peasantry in North India.
Twitterati sees Balakot-polls link
Neither China, Nor Congress Can Dent BJP’s ‘Balakot Advantage’
Significantly, the nationalist credentials earned two years ago by daring to defy Pakistani airspace has stood the BJP government in good stead even when it seemed to be on the back foot during the recent Chinese military aggression.
The Prime Minister could follow a cautious—some would say timid—approach to the blatant provocation by Chinese soldiers on the border refusing to escalate the conflict ignoring jibes by the Congress of a sellout to Beijing largely because he continues to wear the halo of Balakot.
Indeed, unlike the Congress that failed to extract full propaganda mileage out of the stupendous victory over Pakistan in 1971 carving it into two, the BJP has lost no opportunity in claiming credit for the Balakot strike even if its military and strategic gains were negligible compared to the Bangladesh war.
Having so effectively used the Balakot strike to project Prime Minister Modi as the guardian of the nation, it remains to be seen how long the aura of the military action remains if he fails on other fronts. After all, even Indira Gandhi—hailed as Goddess Durga after creating Bangladesh—lost her mystique for vanquishing Pakistan as the years rolled by and lost power in less than a decade after imposing Emergency.
Ultimately, memories of military exploits even if projected so doggedly by the BJP as a political mascot have a shelf life and are likely to recede as other more pressing national issues come to the political foreground.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist and the author of ‘Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati’. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)