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.
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.
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.
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.