War games in election season

War is not a cricket match and an air strike should not be reduced to a political spectacle. But we are in election season which might explain the well-choreographed celebratory note which has been struck in the aftermath of the ‘pre-emptive, non military strike’ on terror camps in Pakistan. As the ‘collective conscience’ of a nation seems to be satiated only by avenging the brutal killing of 40 CRPF soldiers in Pulwama, the dominant national mood leads one to ask: have Pulwama and Pakistan become the core narrative that will influence voter behavior in the 2019 general elections?

In the week leading upto Pulwama, the battlelines had been drawn in more predictable terms: while the BJP leadership spoke of a ‘majboot sarkar’ versus a ‘maha-milawat’ coalition, the opposition was focused on the alleged failed promises of five years of the Modi government, from jobs to agrarian distress. Now, in the aftermath of Pulwama and the cross-LOC air strikes, a conscious attempt is being pushed by the BJP’s political managers to shape the election around the more emotive theme of ‘nationalism’ and Mr Modi’s ‘strongman’ image as a leader who has shown the political will to teach the ‘enemy’ a ‘lesson’: a vote against the BJP is no longer just a vote against Mr Modi but also a vote for ‘anti-national’ forces is the implicit message.

With a ‘lets go to war with Pakistan’ jingoistic television media and a large army of cheerleaders on social media as staunch allies, there has been a concerted campaign to create an environment where anyone who questions the government is immediately branded an ‘anti-national’. Then be it the glaring intelligence lapses in Pulwama or the direction-less Kashmir policy, the government has sought to cover-up its failings under the guise of the need for a ‘unified’ national response to a snow-balling crisis. The frenzied response has stretched to ludicrous extremes at times where even the patriotism of cricketing legends like Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar is questioned because they don’t endorse a boycott of the Pakistan cricket team at the world cup.

This is not the first time the BJP has attempted to equate the party and its leadership with the over-arching credo of ‘Hindu nationalism’. In the 1990s, when the BJP first emerged as a political force in the backdrop of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the overtly communal agenda of Hindu political mobilization co-existed with a ‘nationalistic’ fervor that attracted many retired army generals into the party fold, including the likes of General JFR Jacob, one of the heroes of the 1971 Bangladesh war. After a bruising decade of violence in the 1980s, from riots to assassinations, presided over by a morally compromised Congress party, the BJP was pitched as a party that would provide India with a strong state and a tough leadership that would not bend before any divisive ‘pseudo-secular’ forces.

A similar stratagem was also used when Mr Modi spearheaded the BJP’s controversial 2002 Gujarat campaign. The burning to death of kar-sewaks in a train compartment in Godhra had been the trigger for ‘revenge’ attacks that resulted in the targeted killing of hundreds of Muslims. The identification of the train saboteurs, not just with local Muslims but with neighbouring Pakistan, aroused sub-nationalistic passions under the guise of Gujarati pride or ‘asmita’. A religio-nationalist fury artfully managed by the VHP-led sangh parivar ensured a two-third majority victory for the BJP in the elections.

Is this ‘Gujarat model’ of the 2002 elections now sought to be replicated on a national scale in the 2019 elections? Replace the Godhra Muslims who burnt the compartment of the Sabarmati Express with the Kashmiri Muslim who turned suicide bomber in Pulwama and the stone pelters who attack our security forces. Focus then on Pakistan-based jihadi groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed and their patrons in the Pakistani army who have for long incited trouble in the valley and it is possible to weave a scary narrative of a ‘nation in danger’ from internal and external enemies. It is this frightening imagery which was consciously created when an Amit Shah warned a political rally in Assam’s communally sensitive Lakhimpur district that the BJP would not let the state become another Kashmir. Or when the Meghalaya governor Tathagatha Roy shamefully supported a social boycott of Kashmiris. The dog whistle of demonizing minority Muslims could not have been more stark.

The question is, how will this toxic messaging influence voter behavior? Until now, neither has Kashmir or Pakistan ever been a central issue in an Indian general election, not even the 1999 elections which a Vajpayee-led BJP won in the immediate aftermath of the Kargil war triumph. A ‘war-like’ atmosphere does unify the nation, create a sense of national purpose that is often missing in normal times, but whether it can actually become a single issue reference point for voters across a vast and diverse country is uncertain. In north India, where there are more enduring wounds of a bloodied Partition and a deeper communal divide, there is the possibility of any political consolidation over action against Pakistan giving the ruling party and Mr Modi’s macho leadership a decisive boost.

However, the dangers of climbing up an escalation ladder in the conflict between nuclear neighbours are all too real and for all the ‘josh’ a film like Uri might generate in a cinema theatre, ground realities demand a more cautious approach. No political party or leader, howsoever determined, can easily deal with the prospect of body-bags coming home. Which is why the government needs to tread carefully in the weeks ahead as the election temperature rises as does the pressure on Islamabad to retaliate. Having raised the stakes by crossing the LOC for the first time since 1971, the Modi government cannot now be seen to seek peace easily with the ‘enemy’. Nor will its emotionally surcharged cadres be content with just one surgical strike without causing visible and lasting damage to Pakistan’s terror infrastructure. Nor can a cross-border war be fought without first seeking to reach out to the Kashmiri people caught in the cross-hairs of any escalating Indo-Pak conflict. In tv studios, war-gaming options can be discussed with a casualness that betrays lack of knowledge and sensitivity. In the real world, long term strategic goals must not be confused with short term election advantage: news channels can look for TRPs, a government cant take a ‘war for votes’ more cavalier approach to national security.

Post-script: Last week, in an election show at a leading Chennai college, the students I polled were emphatic that war with Pakistan was not an option they favoured nor did they want a break in sporting ties. Yes, all of us ‘patriotic’ Indians are justifiably angry at Pakistan’s refusal to abandon the terror tap and are proud of our professional armed forces, but lets not allow governmental responses to be fashioned by the war echoes of a manic news cycle.

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