Rahul Gandhi has termed the Prime Minister ‘Surender Modi. In an unprecedented development, all five major national English newspapers criticised the PMO for its handling of the Galwan crisis. For the first time in six years, the Bharatiya Janata Party is on the back foot on an issue that has been central to its political appeal — national security.
Yet, precisely because the BJP so strongly owns the issue of national security, it is unlikely to face any political repercussions for the Narendra Modi government’s blunders in dealing with China. A party is considered to own an issue when it has a long-term reputation of attentiveness and competence on it.
In a 2014 Lokniti survey, 31 per cent of people named the BJP as the most trusted party on national security, with just 19 per cent going for the Congress. The lead appeared to have only widened in 2019, according to surveys.
The era of BJP’s ownership of the national security issue can be said to have definitively begun with the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear tests and the 1999 Kargil War. The zenith of this ownership was the post-Balakot period where the salient national security issue pushed the BJP towards a resounding victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
These reputations of competence are solidified over a long time, and are thus not easily dislodged. Unless there is, in the words of political scientists Jane Green and Will Jennings, “such a major and symbolic policy failure” that it forces voters to “re-evaluate their long-held views”. Something like how the monumental disaster of the Iraq War deposed the long-held Republican ownership of the national security issue, at least for a while.
Modi’s handling of China, in the mainstream public opinion, at most rises to the level of a setback, and not a disaster that can spark such a fundamental re-evaluation. Because of the BJP’s typically adroit media management, people are still more likely to trust Modi and his party with national security than others.
First Congress, then BJP
But why did Indians come to trust the BJP with national security?
World over, reputations on national security are not formed on the basis of any real policy outcomes but the perception of which party is ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ on important threats. In other words, a party need not deliver on national security in order to own the issue. As Patrick Egan explains in his book Partisan Priorities: How Issue Ownership Drives and Distorts American Politics, “party owned issues do not improve in any detectable way when the party is in power.”
The BJP has come to own the national security issue because it is seen to be the most ‘tough’/‘hard’/‘strong’ party on the three most important threats in popular imagination: Pakistan, Islamic extremism, and Maoism. When asked about India’s biggest threats in a 2014 Pew survey, 90 per cent respondents included Pakistan, 85 per cent included Naxalites and 80 per cent included Lashkar-e-Taiba. Mostly through its uncompromising rhetoric, fortified with occasional dramatic policies, on Pakistan and terrorism, the BJP has owned the issue of national security. Both Pakistan and terrorism, by design, seamlessly align with its domestic politics of Hindutva and anti-Muslim prejudice.
The Congress had comfortably owned the issue of national security till the time of Indira Gandhi, and also, to an extent, Rajiv Gandhi. Indira Gandhi had led India to a crushing victory against Pakistan in 1971, for which Atal Bihari Vajpayee had anointed her ‘Durga’, and adopted a majoritarian tenor in her campaign against the Khalistan movement. It is because of her national security credentials that she is the only member of the Nehru-Gandhi family the BJP shirks from attacking on security. Even when it comes to Emergency, the principal villain is the Congress party as a whole.
BJP’s ownership of national security
However, starting from the mid-1990s, the BJP has come to be recognised as the toughest party on national security. This has happened through the following five ways:
First, the BJP projected itself as a party not tied to any vote bank, whereas the Congress and other parties have been presented as indulging in ‘appeasement’ of Indian Muslims. The BJP used this binary to create a voter perception on the national security issue. According to PM Modi, there are two types of politics — ‘vote bhakti‘ (worship) and ‘desh bhakti‘. The Congress’ non reply to 26/11 represented ‘vote bhakti ‘(appeasing Muslims) while the Balakot strikes on Pakistan represented ‘desh bhakti’. The Congress and other parties were, therefore, soft on ‘separatism’, ‘terrorism’ and Pakistan because, unlike the BJP, they needed Muslim votes.
Second, through dramatic policies signalling its uncompromising attitude and willingness to take risks. Whereas Narasimha Rao and I.K. Gujral passed up on the nuclear tests fearing economic sanctions, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, on coming to power, immediately ordered the preparation for nuclear tests. But his government just lasted for 13 days. Nevertheless, a few weeks into his new term in 1998, Vajpayee announced that India was now a nuclear power and declared that the ‘greatest meaning’ of the just conducted tests was that it had ‘given India Shakti (power)’.
While then-Defence Minister George Fernandes had identified China as India’s ‘potential threat number one’ just before the nuclear tests, Home Minister L.K. Advani made clear that the tests were meant for Pakistan. “India’s nuclear weapons capability showed the country’s resolve to deal firmly with Pakistan”, and it was “Pakistan’s clandestine preparations that forced us to take the path of nuclear deterrence,” Advani told the media days after the tests.
The tests were incredibly popular and the Sangh Parivar held celebratory demonstrations throughout India. An opinion poll conducted the day following the tests found that 91 per cent of people supported the tests; while 67 per cent felt the BJP-led coalition was ‘strong and would safeguard their security’, a sentiment that was strengthened a year later with India’s eventual success in the Kargil War.
We saw the same risk-taking with the removal of Article 370, another policy that earned the opprobrium of the world (although to a lesser degree), and the publicly touted surgical strikes, both of which enhanced the BJP’s national security credibility. The principal threat in the BJP worldview always has to be Pakistan, because its hawkish national security stance is essentially and inescapably linked to the domestic politics of anti-Muslim prejudice. On China, for instance, as the recent episode attests, the BJP policy is almost indistinguishable from that of the Congress.
Third, the rhetoric of contrasting ‘human rights’ against national security as conflicting goals, and staking a claim to the latter while associating its opponents with the former. In the 2019 campaign, Modi alleged that the Congress repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) “due to its policy of appeasement and to satisfy its vote bank,” thus “bowing its head before terrorism”. The BJP had declared in its 2009 manifesto that the country had seen repeated terrorist attacks because the “Prime Minister spent sleepless nights agonising over the plight of terror suspects.” By painting the Left-wing members of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) as sympathetic to Maoists (Modi termed social activist Harsh Mander a ‘Maoist’ in 2013), the BJP projected the Congress as “soft on Maoism” despite the ruthless “Operation Green Hunt” launched by P. Chidambaram.
Fourth, the crafty use of language — the constant repetition of certain terms and slogans to drill home the BJP’s toughness on national security. Advani popularised the term “hot pursuit” to advocate for a policy of hunting down terrorists who had fled across the border (although the policy was never executed). Similarly, the slogan of ‘giving the Army a free hand’, which the BJP first used in its manifesto in 1998. This phrase is effectively meaningless because the Army can only follow the policy of the civilian administration.
Another slogan that the BJP popularised to attack the UPA was ‘talks and terror can’t go together’ despite the constant talks between the Vajpayee administration and Pakistan, as also in the early phase of the Modi era. The much-touted ‘surgical strikes’ were carried out even before Modi became prime minister, but not publicised because, in the words of former NSA Shivshankar Menon, “they were not aimed at the domestic constituency”. Under the Modi government, though, surgical strikes became a household byword for the resolve of ‘New India’.
Fifth, through a securitisation of politics where every issue becomes a national security issue. The BJP made Bangladeshi immigrants from the early 1990s a national security issue. That arc continues to the present day where (only Muslim) immigrants are seen as security threats who must be identified and excised from the national community with the pincer movement of the CAA and the NRC.
All about perception
In an objective sense, India’s national security is in poor shape. Terrorism has registered an upsurge in the Kashmir Valley. Our neighbours are either alienated or outright hostile, with even Nepal adopting a confrontationist pose. PM Modi has meekly retreated from humiliation at the hands of China.
But politics is about perception. The BJP has built a deep-rooted perception about its competence on national security over the decades and it won’t be lost any time soon. In the larger sweep of history, this China episode — unless it escalates further — is likely to be remembered much like the 2001 Agra summit, a minor setback that carried little relevance to the broader political dynamics beyond the immediate embarrassment for the ruling BJP.
Asim Ali and Ankita Barthwal are research associates at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal.