Pulwama Attack: Modi Has No Choice But to Flex Muscle Before Polls
Inaction on Pulwama will cost the government dearly and Modi cannot afford this.
The entry of muscular-nationalism as a poll issue appeared predetermined over the past few months. The question was how? Would the Centre suo motu push this issue by another ambitious action against terrorists or would it be forced on it?
After Thursday afternoon's suicide bomb attack which killed around 40 CRPF jawans in Pulwama, it is inevitable that the Centre's response to this would feature in the election narrative. The Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot allow the image of being weak-kneed to sully his public persona in election season.
However, the opposition too will try preventing Modi from running away with all the kudos in the event of visible or publicised retaliatory action against perpetrators of the terror strike.
Congress’ Smart Move of Building Pressure
Hours after the terror strike, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra—the new 'wild card' on the election turf—aptly cancelled her scheduled press conference but still secured media space by declaring grief and observing silence to condole the death of the CRPF soldiers.
This was followed by Congress president, Rahul Gandhi's decision to cancel his lunch on Friday with heads of the missions of the G-20 nations.
The effort is obviously to project the opposition as responsible parties willing to suspend political attacks on the ruling party and government in an hour of crisis.
The statement issued by Gandhi Vadra is also revealing of the emerging strategy of the party in the event of terrorism bouncing back as a major political issue. While expressing sorrow and understanding regarding the "pain and grief of losing a loved one in the family," she expressed solace by stating that her party was with "the entire country (and) is standing shoulder to shoulder with the families of the brave soldiers."
Significantly, she also asserted that everyone must "also reflect and be concerned about the high number of casualties in Kashmir. We demand that this government take concrete steps to ensure such terror attacks don't happen in the future." This is as veiled a criticism can be in the immediate aftermath of a massive terrorist attack. It also put pressure on the Centre to ensure no further recurrence.
Clamour for a Befitting Reply to Pakistan
The last line of her statement, made almost at the same time as key ministers and spokespersons were promising prompt and retaliatory action, not only insulates the Congress from BJP criticism that the opposition does not stand with the bereaved soldiers during tragedy, but also puts pressure on government to act. This tone is being maintained in interactions of other party leaders as well. Congress President Rahul Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have given indication that thy are not going to allow Modi to run away with political gains.
By saying that they are fully with the deceased soldiers and also the government, they have put Modi in a slightly awkward spot. How this narrative evolves further has to be seen, it is likely to prevent the BJP from seizing all political benefits that may accrue in the event of another major response from Indian defence forces.
The worst attack in Kashmir's almost three decades of terrorist violence was certainly a setback for the BJP and Modi's image as a tough leader who brooks no major attack on Indian security forces by terrorist. Officially, Pakistan has been stripped of the Most Favoured Nation status. It is likely to be sketched as the most abhorred nation in the course of the election campaign.
Modi has long projected his conviction that “Pakistan must be given a reply in the language it best understands”, a phrase he used immediately after stepping foot in Mumbai in 2008 within a day of neutralising terrorists involved in the 26/11 strikes.
High Expectations After ‘Surgical Strikes’
Five days after the Uri strike, Modi had addressed delegates at the BJP National Council in Kozhikode. In this speech, he became the first Indian premier to accept Pakistan's challenge of a thousand year long war on Kashmir (a statement purportedly made by former Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto).
Although the gains from “surgical strikes” have been consistently manifest more in the political and psychological terrain than in the strategic domain, it yielded political dividends for the party and contributed to the electoral sweep in Uttar Pradesh.
Any response which is considered ‘soft’ is unlikely now because Indian is weeks away from elections.
Modi will be more bi-focal than ever—his immediate attention will be on somehow settling the score to ensure no further loss of political capital.
Scepticism of security experts regarding long-term advantages of publicising the response to Uri terror strike notwithstanding, the phrase "surgical strikes" has become part of folklore and greatly benefits Modi. Notice for instance the enthusiastic response to Uri, the film, and the emergence of 'militainment' as a credible form of cinema and no one being apologetic about jingoism in public discourse.
Inaction Will Cost Dearly, Gains of Action Unknown
A large number of Indians, especially the youth, neither have memory, nor the time to learn more about shared heritage of the sub-continent and their nationalist spirit has been fed with a heavy dose of anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Because this section also comprises a major part of the votes, Modi will not but act with an eye on support of this group.
Opposition parties will be in quandary even if their assessment matches their evaluation of “surgical strikes” and they disagree with the response of the Centre to Pulwama. Modi, it needs to be recalled, criticised opposition parties during the campaign in UP and even thereafter, for being critical of the government's response to the Uri terror attack. Modi and his party have consistently argued with some success that criticism of government policy on security and defence matters or its response to terrorist violence is nothing short of being anti-national.
For political reasons, Modi cannot but publicly act beyond diplomacy. If he does not, it will be just a matter of time before someone else turns to them and mockingly asks “How’s the Josh?”
The BJP would not want this rallying cry of the army to be used to ridicule the party and its leader. While retaliatory action doesn't guarantee kudos like post Uri, silence will cost the government dearly and Modi cannot afford this. Certainly, while the cost of inaction is known, benefits of retribution is unknown.
It remains to be seen if the response to the Pulwama terror strike interferes with the polls process and schedule, or just gets played up during the campaign. Whichever way, this will be an election in the times of muscular and retaliatory nationalism.
(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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