File photo of Narendra Modi at a rally in Churu, Rajasthan | PTI
File photo of Narendra Modi at a rally in Churu, Rajasthan | PTI
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A few hours after the Indian Air Force bombed terror camps inside Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at a (pre-scheduled) rally in Churu, Rajasthan. The poster behind him had photographs of the CRPF men who died in Pulwama. The crowd was screaming “Modi! Modi!” with a natural enthusiasm that one hasn’t seen in Modi rallies for a while.

Modi began his speech by referring to the events of the dawn, without actually mentioning them. The nation is in safe hands, he said. To this, he added other achievements on the national security front: a national war memorial and increased pensions for soldiers.

Yet he quickly moved on to bread and butter issues, spending most of his speech time on his recent populist schemes for farmers and public health.

Perhaps Modi did not want to speak much on ‘Surgical Strikes II’ for fear of contributing to escalation. After all, we’re still in the middle of a season of military hostility with Pakistan.

But perhaps there was more to it. Perhaps Modi understands that national security can at best be only one of many issues in the general election.

If you look at Modi’s messaging since the 14 February attack on Pulwama, he did not overplay the national security card. He could easily have done that the moment he knew the IAF was going to carry out the strikes. Since 14 February Modi seems to have not altered his itinerary at all: collecting a peace prize in Seoul, washing the feet of Dalit sanitation workers in Uttar Pradesh, defending his record on job creation at a media summit in Delhi and so on.

By contrast, many seem to think that the 2019 election is over, and Modi’s once again an invincible hero. Perhaps they are right, but here’s a case to argue otherwise.


Also read: In Balakot, India tested a new military reaction much different from 2016 surgical strikes


Lessons from history

The BJP won 182 seats in 1998. Atal Bihari Vajpayee became a coalition prime minister. He went on to carry out nuclear tests in Pokhran, but his coalition government fell within a year of that. Vajpayee was the caretaker PM when the Kargil war broke out in May 1999.

Facing pressure from regional allies, the BJP was forced to concede even more seats to them in the 1999 general election. As a result, the BJP again won the same number of seats – 182, even though its strike rate did go up.

Despite Pokhran and Kargil, the BJP didn’t exactly sweep the elections, nor could it reduce the pressure of allies in seat distribution. The re-election had other factors too, such as Vajpayee’s immense popularity regardless of Pokhran and Kargil, and the fact that he was seen as the one wronged by pesky allies. Despite his nationalist credentials, Vajpayee lost in 2004, thanks to his government’s neglect of rural economy.


Also read: Pakistan won’t abandon its proxy war after Balakot, but will find new ways of waging it


Winning an election without a war

Another time when a national security crisis took place on election eve was the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008. General election was just four months away. Manmohan Singh chose to exercise strategic restraint despite immense pressure from the media and the BJP to go for an all-out military response. Such was the war hysteria that a liberal news magazine asked on its cover, “Is war the only option?”

L.K. Advani ran a campaign on nothing but national security. The BJP put up posters of Afzal Guru, a death row convict in Parliament attack case, across the country. The posters said the Congress was not executing Guru for Muslim appeasement, thereby suggesting that Indian Muslims were supportive of anti-India terrorists.

This attempt to merge war hysteria with religious majoritarianism did not work. The Congress returned to power with 61 seats more than it had won in 2004. The good showing was attributed to the party’s ability to ensure high growth while keeping the rural poor happy.

On the ground, voters were talking more about the UPA-I’s rural employment guarantee law and a farm loan waiver than 26/11.

After a terrorist attack at an army camp in Uri in 2016, the Modi government carried out cross-border raids along the Line of Control, popularly describing them as surgical strikes. These took place in September 2016 on the eve of assembly election in Uttar Pradesh in 2017.

Many attribute the BJP’s sweep in Uttar Pradesh to demonetisation. That is incorrect. When asked why they were voting for the BJP, voters often cited the Ujjwala scheme through which many poor families got a free LPG gas cylinder. Truth is, the main reason why the BJP won UP was because it had got its caste arithmetic right, polarising lower OBCs against dominant Yadavs.

The surgical strikes were not a central election issue in UP although it was the first time in public memory that India had hit back at Pakistan since 1971 – even in Kargil, India had not crossed the LoC.

In a similar vein, the British public rallied around Winston Churchill during WWII but defeated him in the immediate post-war election of 1945. He was the right man to lead Britain in war but not in peace.


Also read: IAF strike signals India is prepared to go to a limited war with Pakistan


It’s the economy, stupid

The famous political phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” owes its origins to a similar situation. In 1991, George H.W. Bush had the US army invade Iraq. His approval ratings had shot up to 90 per cent. A year later, his ratings fell sharply due to an economic recession. As the Bill Clinton campaign wondered what voters would choose, unemployment or war, his campaign strategist came up with the line, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

None of this is to say that the IAF response to Pulwama doesn’t help make Modi look better. Of course it does, and of course it will improve his ratings, his vote-share and his seats. And if the conflict escalates further, it could help him even more.

Yet it may not be the game-changer many think it to be. In both India and Pakistan, many seem to think that (a) Modi was losing; (b) the Balakot strike will help him win. Both these presumptions are exaggerated. Modi wasn’t facing certain defeat, only attrition that needed him to re-calibrate his coalition strategy. The Balakot strike could help him win a few more seats, but won’t single-handedly get him a majority like 2014.

The central issue in every general election is the voter’s economic prosperity. It will likely be the same this election too.

Modi might return to power thanks to his cash schemes for farmers, and the media will give credit to the Balakot strike. It’s possible the BJP might return to power because it has formed the right caste strategy but the Delhi narrative will be about Pakistan. Poverty and caste are the two things that India’s elites pretend don’t exist.

Check out My543, our comprehensive report card of all Lok Sabha MPs.


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21 Comments Share Your Views

21 COMMENTS

  1. What the hell is this journalist writing.
    He seems to be least bothered about the lives lost in the terrorist attack. He seems to be okay with the dastardly attack because no one among his known has died in the attack. Perhaps because it is the security forces who came under attack, it doesn’t matter to him. These stooges are the ones who are spoiling the name of the country. Would you profess the same thing if someone barges into your house and starts ramming you?

    The problem is many of the media houses is paid up by the pappu gang. To hell with you….. we support our P.M. and will make sure he wins the next election too……

  2. Its Modi, Stupid !! And what a schmuck this Vij guy is to quote economy as a reason underlying Modi’s declining popularity in upcoming elections. These pseudo-bloggers at Scrolls & prints literally live in the world of fantasies & speculations, even pot junkies perhaps for a minute, do return back, on the contrary snobs like Vij seem to have taken citizenship of Mars. By the way, such a desperate & disguisting attempt, which they proclaim to be an eye-opening article, is making rounds on Pakistani news portals like Dawn. Whatever but these leeches are affirming to the objective of a real journo who’s always striving to broadcast their news so it hits the masses, but to them those masses are apparently based out in neighbouring country.

    • Jasdeep, your comment betrays huge bias and yet to accuse the author of having the bias? It’s a fact that different people have different world views. A hard line worldview doesn’t entitle you any more citizen ship points in a sane country as a liberal world view does. Grow up and realise that not everyone you agree with are anti national. It may be too late though, your case is chronic.

  3. I too don’t agree with @author . This is not the revenge taken by PM or any political party but our armed forces . Please understand the pain of he families of 45 people died in the terrorist attack.

  4. Agree to a certain degree. Boosting the economy is one thing and living next to a rabid dog and thinking of boosting the economy is another thing. The logical solution is to deal with the rabid dog referring to Pakistan and then focusing on the other pressing issues. All of us who are not spending nights at the border amid incessant shelling or not losing somebody due to a an act of madness can pen solutions. But when you lose somebody close or when you learn that anytime of the day/night you have a 99.9% probability to catch the flight to the other world then the first thing which you do is secure yourself and your family.. That is normal and expected if you are normal. Today the immediate firefighting solutions which we are deploying is the need of the hour. Economy and everything is secondary. This should have been dealt with in the past decades by Singh,Rao and other ex PM’s but they chose to do nothing . So somebody had to step into the boots and had to kick the “rabid dog” and possibly if it goes that direction has to be put to sleep so that our next generations can live in peace and a stable region. I don’t care if body bags come in or body bags count go up in Pakistan but this is the solution we have to deliver and we might die in the process in order to secure our future generations. Journalists like you are everywhere who die a thousand deaths . We call them simply as Cowards.

  5. Nice balanced column. War is not the answer and Pakistan is ready to support the investigations on pulwama so if they are ready what are the strikes for? Calm down cool down sit and talk. As Khan says initiating a war is easy and in human s hands but concluding it is out of hands. So when the government and army of Pakistan are only talking about peace why dont both parties just sit and talk? Pakistan has lost 70,000 lives in the hands of terrorism and fighting an internal war for so many years and fighting india doesnt help them in the region. So please take it easy and stop supporting wars. Its not only indian lives which are on stake its pakistani lives too. As DG ISPR said in the end humanity will lose if we go on a war.

  6. crystal clear thinking and penning ! like always ! Mr .Vij look forward to your columns like I do for Ram Guha , Yogendra Yadav and Seed Naqvi .

  7. What sort of a human being (leave alone Indian) are you? Crpf guys died. A pilot is in pakistan’s custody. And you sit here, reflecting on poll outcomes !
    Have you got any shred of shame in you? Or have you traded your intellect for money in your pocket from those who want modi-bashing in everything.

  8. JEM and masood azhar, the terrorist are a protected by pak! Pakistan has miscalculated that Pulwama will pass of peacefully as usual under the nuclear threat! But Modi’s calculated military response is inscisive! People are by and large appreciative of the response different from the past. Pulwama was triggered not at Modi’s request! Terrorist acts and National Security responses are not measured as vote catchers or otherwise. It is utter stupidity to think whether Modi will be re-elected? For the people India and its self-respect matters. Elections are a pigmy.

  9. What’s wrong with Print. Too soon for you to start analysing impact of strikes on Modi’s future. You should be concentrating on the narrative and not the outcome at this stage.

  10. Why every thing is politics to you? Such a planned execution by IAF can’t be for political gain. Why by default you are against PM…..can you share a single article praising PM. It can not happen in 5 years PM didn’t do a single right thing (no as per your definition) . Not bhakts but there are other people who follows and believe in him, so many people cant be fool and just u smart. Is’t it?

  11. It’s funny our people are getting killed by Pakistan and if a government does act then rather this rejoicing this third rate journalist is busy in thinking about the outcome of elections. What a moron.

      • You shut up and tell this reporter to shut up too! It is so sad that we have people like you for whom it’s doesn’t matter how many Indian lives are lost. You have to cook up your third rate imaginary narratives which are totally centred on winning elections.

      • Agree to a certain degree. Boosting the economy is one thing and living next to a rabid dog and thinking of boosting the economy is another thing. The logical solution is to deal with the rabid dog referring to Pakistan and then focusing on the other pressing issues. All of us who are not spending nights at the border amid incessant shelling or not losing somebody due to a an act of madness can pen solutions. But when you lose somebody close or when you learn that anytime of the day/night you have a 99.9% probability to catch the flight to the other world then the first thing which you do is secure yourself and your family.. That is normal and expected if you are normal. Today the immediate firefighting solutions which we are deploying is the need of the hour. Economy and everything is secondary. This should have been dealt with in the past decades by Singh,Rao and other ex PM’s but they chose to do nothing . So somebody had to step into the boots and had to kick the “rabid dog” and possibly if it goes that direction has to be put to sleep so that our next generations can live in peace and a stable region. I don’t care if body bags come in or body bags count go up in Pakistan but this is the solution we have to deliver and we might die in the process in order to secure our future generations. Journalists like you are everywhere who die a thousand deaths . We call them simply as Cowards.

    • shivam vij is the known congress press t ttute frustrated that he did not get any awards like his gang durkha butt rajdeep n sagarikah bhose …we love to see the frustration of these congressi idiots….

  12. War is too high a price to pay for a desired electoral outcome. Once the body bags start coming, the national mood sours very quickly. Quite apart from the huge economic cost, both of military operations and of property destroyed. 2. Saw a year 2000 interview of ACM Tipnis by a very young Vishnu Som and Nidhi Razdan. They were asking him about the spate of accidents involving the MiG 21 and the delay in phasing them out. We are still flying that obsolete aircraft. All those reports of 60% of ammunition being stale. We will fight with what we have is a brave sentiment, but it may not be good enough.

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