The bugle for the critical Uttar Pradesh elections has been sounded and the charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party is being personally led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His strongman image and focus on national security has been a recurring electoral theme since 2014. Surgical strikes across the Line of Control on the night of 28-29 September 2016 and Balakot airstrikes on the night of 26-27 February 2019 were successfully exploited during assembly elections in five states, including Uttar Pradesh, in the first quarter of 2017 and parliamentary elections in 2019 respectively.
Despite the denial and obfuscation, the reverses in Eastern Ladakh in 2020 and Pakistan continuing to cock a snook with impunity in Jammu and Kashmir have severely dented the BJP’s image with respect to national security. However, displaying its panache for electoral innovation, it has modified its theme to showcase defence preparedness and atmanirbharta (in defence).
In the last 10 days, the Prime Minister held two major events in UP to cleverly incorporate the military into his electioneering, both to refurbish his dented strongman image and to exploit the public sentiments of the state that contributes the largest number of soldiers – 14.5 per cent – to the Indian Army. The military hierarchy seems to have acquiesced, if not willingly cooperated.
Airshow on Purvanchal Expressway
On 16 November, Modi inaugurated the 341 km-long Purvanchal Expressway from Lucknow to Ghazipur, at Karwal Kheri village. Modi had re-laid the foundation stone at Azamgarh on 14 July 2018. Re-laid because former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav claimed that he had laid the foundation stone on 22 December 2016 and undertaken all the preparatory projects, including procurement of 50 per cent of the land required. This controversy notwithstanding, Purvanchal Expressway is a major developmental project for a relatively underdeveloped part of UP completed in a little over three years.
However, the inauguration of the expressway was eclipsed by the spectacular 45-minute-long air show organised by the Indian Air Force, literally in the middle of nowhere. A 3.2 km-long emergency airstrip was constructed at Karwal Kheri village as part of the expressway project. Modi made a spectacular entry for the inauguration by landing on the expressway in a C130 transport aircraft. This was followed by an airshow that showcased the securing of an airfield/landing strip by Special Forces and IAF, Garud Commandos, and functioning of an emergency air maintenance team, which worked on a Mirage 2000, after landing from two AN 32 transport aircraft. This was followed by flypast/landing/touch landing/aerobatics by Su 30/Mirage 2000/Jaguar fighter/multi-role aircraft. The culmination of the show was the colours of the national flag trailed by three AN 32 aircraft escorted by two SU 30 fighters and aerobatic display by a SU 30. Approximately, 20 aircraft took part in the airshow, which taking into account at least three-to-four rehearsals, would have cost the IAF approximately Rs 2.5 crore for jet fuel only apart from the large number of personnel used for organising the event.
Ironically, there were only a few spectators who seemed to be mostly BJP members sitting under shamianas. The public seemed to be missing and probably witnessed the airshow from a distance. Prominent on the dais along with the PM were the governor, Anandiben Patel, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and four BJP functionaries, all wearing caps with IAF insignia. The Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat and Chief of Air Staff Vivek Ram Chaudhuri were in attendance. The unfortunate conclusion is that the IAF, which organised the airshow as an official function of the Prime Minister, ended up promoting the political interests of the BJP. More so, when landing on emergency airstrips on expressways/highways is no longer unique and has been done a number of times since 2015.
In 2016, then-UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav also inaugurated the Agra-Lucknow expressway with an IAF airshow.
Rashtriya Raksha Samarpan Parv
Another mega official event – the Rashtriya Raksha Samarpan Parv – held from 17 to 19 November as part of the ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ celebrations, was organised jointly by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the government of Uttar Pradesh at Jhansi to dedicate a number of defence schemes to the nation. The event also coincided with the 193rd birth anniversary of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi on 19 November. Rani of Jhansi, apart from being a national icon, has a special significance for the BJP.
The ‘Rashtriya Raksha Samparan Parv’ itself is a first. In the past, introduction of new defence equipment or inauguration of projects was generally done by the Defence Minister or Minister of State for Defence Production. In this event three major equipment, one each for the Army, Navy and the Air Force, were formally handed over to the respective Chiefs. A ritual never done before.
The Chief of Air Staff, symbolically, received the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), which is an armed helicopter based on the proven Dhruv, Advanced Light Helicopter platform, but with considerable modifications and improvements. The LCH was under development for nearly a decade and a half and will form part of the rotary offensive capability along with the Apache for the three Services. It is the only helicopter in the world that can takeoff/land at 5,000 metres. Orders for LCH have already been placed. However, the armament package, which is being imported, is yet to be finalised.
The Chief of Naval Staff received an advanced electronic warfare suit – Shakti – for its ships, developed by the DRDO. It is already deployed on the Indian Navy’s new destroyer, INS Visakhapatnam and will soon be fitted on INS Vikramaditya. The Vice Chief of Army Staff received drones/UAVs developed by Indian startups.
Prime Minister Modi also gave a boost to languishing defence industrial corridor of UP by inaugurating a 400-crore defence project of Bharat Dynamics Limited to manufacture propulsion systems of anti-tank guided missiles. The “samarpan” of several other initiatives was also done, including 100 new Sainik Schools through public-private partnership, the launch of a National Cadet Corps (NCC) border and coastal scheme, the NCC Alumni Association, a national programme of simulation training for NCC cadets and the launch of a digital kiosk at the National War Memorial (NWM) to pay tributes to the fallen heroes through the NWM mobile app.
There is absolutely no doubt the government has given a phenomenal flip to self-reliance in defence through its flagship Aatmanirbhar Bharat scheme. But to hold a formal function below the ramparts of Jhansi Fort to do “samarpan” of equipment/schemes/projects to the nation in a critical state three months away from election and in presence of its beleaguered chief minister to boost his image, smacks of an ulterior motive.
Given the timing of these combo political-cum-defence events, the military hierarchy should have smelt a rat and quietly advised the government to make a distinct separation and refrain from making the military indirectly a part of the election campaign. If the CDS and the Chiefs have unwittingly become a party to it, then they must ensure a course correction for future. But if they have willingly cooperated, then the nation and the armed forces will reap the whirlwinds!
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)