IAF Air Strikes in Pak: Has Modi Won Half the Election Battle?

Modi was on a weak electoral wicket barely 14 days ago; the Indian Air Force airstrike in Pak is a shot in the arm.

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Opinion
5 min read
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In his acceptance speech for the Seoul Peace Prize on 22 February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quoted the popular Korean saying Shichagi Bhanida, meaning, “A good beginning is half the battle”. Although he referred to this in the context of the peace process in the Korean Peninsula, his security establishment would be restating this in a completely different context.

But more importantly, as the news of strikes by the Indian Air Force spread across India on Tuesday, 26 February, his domestic admirers too would have begun reiterating the foreign adage.

For them, while the war against terrorists and their backers in the Pakistani state might be important in the immediate, medium and long terms concurrently, the more significant and urgent battle is the electoral one, just weeks away.

IAF Incursions May Have Improved Poll Prospects for Modi

Barely a fortnight ago, Modi was on a weak electoral wicket. The central focus during discussions on the impending polls was over the Bharatiya Janata Party's inability to string together a singular narrative on which people could be motivated to vote across India.

Instead of one poll, like 2014, which was fought on the twin issues of anti-incumbency against the UPA regime and hope and aspirations that Modi generated, 2019 appears to be splitting up into multiple polls on issues of unemployment, farm distress, limited delivery of promises, and above all, caste arithmetic.

The IAF incursions, smartly called “non-military pre-emptive action”, which was “specifically targeted at the JeM camp”, has appreciably altered the poll scenario.

In the event of India having successfully called Pakistan's bluff and Islamabad not walking the talk of reserving the “right to retaliate” as part of its “right to self-defence”, and polls being held as per schedule, the election campaign will be dominated by Modi's claim of “saugandh mujhe hai is mitti ki, main desh naheen mitne doonga...” (I pledge to not allow this nation to be wiped out).

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With this being the tone, it is possible that the polls will be insanely emotional in which there will be little scope of livelihood or social security issues being talked about.

Whatever would feature would be led by the BJP's publicity mechanism, listing out one 'achievement' after another.

Patriotism May Not Be Last Refuge of a Scoundrel, But...

Although patriotism may not be the last refuge of a scoundrel in the present context, as English writer Samuel Johnson famously declared in 1775, it surely has the capacity to subsume every other emotion and issue.

Other nations, including India, have seen this sentiment overtake rational thought and balanced opinion in the past, and voters being swayed similarly cannot be ruled out at this stage.

Since 2014, vigilante groups have been actively encouraged to malign and defame those holding aloft the flag for alternate voices. This group will hereafter become more belligerent, and on a moral high. It will only make criticism of the government and Modi tougher, because he will be credited for having taken the bull by its horns.

This has been evident since 14 February, when after a lull of several days, the only criticism leveled by the Opposition against Modi was over his photo shoot on the day of the strike. Now, after Tuesday's pre-dawn dropping of payload on the JeM facility, the Opposition will find it tough to scramble criticism of the government.

Pressure on All Indians, Including Congress, To Cheer for Military

Congress President Rahul Gandhi's first public reaction was a tweet in which he saluted the pilots of the IAF. The worry is that hereafter, the Opposition will struggle to catch up with Modi and regain the momentum it had pre-Pulwama.

Rahul Gandhi’s tweet in fact draws attention to the palpable pressure henceforth on every Indian, even those wanting to be more restrained in their response, to cheer the Indian military, especially the IAF.

There will be greater expectation on people to wear nationalism on its sleeve, and those wishing to be more circumspect, would be certainly booed, if not targeted.

In public discourse, Modi would be projected and possibly perceived, as the only leader with the chutzpah to unleash military power against Pakistan-based terrorists (make no mistake, in public imagination these groups are merely proxies of Pakistan's Deep State), as against the 'indecisive' and 'meek' Congress-led government that was in power, before Modi came with the intention of "teaching them a lesson".

Pak May Have to Eat Humble Pie, But Road Ahead Still Unknown

It is possibly just a matter of time before the narrative is rewound to the Shimla Agreement, and it may be presented as the instance when New Delhi returned its winning trophy. Modi, it could be argued, with his second offensive against Pakistan, has taken revenge for a thousand indignities. Despite India's claim of the strikes being “non-military”, the military path remains open for the sub-continent.

Of course, the international community would pressurise Islamabad and more importantly, Rawalpindi, to eat humble pie for the moment, because of the chilling global ramifications of escalation. Yet, there is no knowing the road ahead.

It is true that the victory in Kargil did not help Atal Bihari Vajpayee in his bid to increase his party's tally – it remained static at 182 in 1999. In fact, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP's tally fell from 57 in 1998, to 29 in 1999, with a drop in vote share of almost 9 percent. Significantly, this loss was not due to the consolidation of anti-BJP votes, because, in both elections, the contest was quadrangular, with BJP, Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party contesting without any alliance.

Too Early to Say Modi Has Won by Winning Half the Battle

However, those were early days of India's never-ending tryst with terrorism – violence was by and large localised, and the scale was not epic. Repeated episodes of foreign-based terrorists striking at will, had not pushed citizens into despair. In the two decade-long interregnum since the 1999 hijack of Indian Airlines flight IC 814; the attack on Parliament; the Mumbai terror attacks; the strikes on Pathankot air base, Uri camp and the CRPF convoy, became just instances which built up anger against Pakistan, and bolstered a sense of nationalism, driven by a party which obfuscated other issues for the most part.

It is too early to say that winning half the battle will ensure the final victory for Modi. Most importantly, even in the instance of Pakistan’s twin power centres accepting humiliation for the moment and not retaliating, it remains Modi’s task to ensure there are no terrorist strikes anywhere within India between now and the entire poll process.

He also has to utilise gains from this operation to further leverage India's international standing.

If Modi succeeds in his effort and if the Opposition fails to regroup and mount a counter-strategy, Modi will have succeeded in etching his name in history, for it will be proven that India has the capability and political will to transgress at will, if its security interests are jeopardised or hurt.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin.)

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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