Raisen/Sehore/Hoshangabad/Bhopal: Balakot and Rafale are two words that have dominated this election campaign over a period of time, dwarfing much else.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi never seems to tire of mentioning the air strikes by the Indian Air Force in Pakistan’s Balakot, in retaliation to the Pulwama terror attack. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, is equally dogged in his combative push to string together a narrative of corruption in the Rafale jet deal.
The phrase ‘chowkidaar chor hai’ (the watchman is a thief) is, in fact, a combination of these. While PM Modi wants to portray himself as a ‘chowkidaar’ who protects the nation, Gandhi wants to project the PM as a ‘chor’, and for that, keeps underscoring the Rafale allegations.
Both have even got into trouble for their aggressive push on these counts — the Election Commission had sought a report on Modi asking first-time voters to dedicate their vote to those who carried out the air strike in Balakot, while the Supreme Court pulled up Gandhi for incorrectly attributing the slogan ‘chowkidar chor hai’ in the context of the Rafale deal to the apex court.
Through Balakot, Modi wants to project himself as a strong, muscular leader, as opposed to earlier ‘weak’ regimes. And through Rafale, Gandhi wants to convince voters the PM is corrupt and dent his ‘clean’ image. But like in most contests, there can only be one winner. And in Madhya Pradesh, which began polling Monday and still has three phases to go, the clear winner is Balakot.
This is a state where the BJP did exceedingly well in 2014, winning 27 of the 29 seats, but the Congress succeeded in wresting power in last year’s state elections.
Bold Balakot, meaningless Rafale
A common refrain among voters is that the “revenge” in Balakot was a “bold, needed move”, while Gandhi’s Rafale allegations are “meaningless”. Voters not only know details of what happened in Pulwama, but also have their own figures for the damage inflicted on terror camps in Balakot.
As far as Rafale is concerned, however, some voters have barely heard of it, some know a bit more, but most believe it is a non-issue.
“Forty of our jawans were killed in Pulwama. Shouldn’t we have taken revenge? That is why Balakot attacks were conducted by Modi and we killed 300 terrorists. This shows what he is capable of. It is something we all welcome and support him for. As far as Rafale is concerned, I don’t know much but whatever it is, I don’t believe it,” says Hemraj Rajput of Simrai village in Raisen.
Nitin Bishwakarma of Bhopal agrees. “With the strikes in Balakot, we showed we are not less than anyone. After all, 40 of our men were killed, so Modi ji took revenge. But Rafale, I don’t know much about. I haven’t paid attention to it,” he says.
When asked about the slogan ‘chowkidaar chor hai’, Bishwakarma says “chowkidaar kabhi chor nahi hota” (a watchman can never be the thief).
These sentiments seem to run across a cross-section of voters — Balakot getting all-round support, with voters even criticising the Congress for “questioning” it, while Rafale either draws a blank or is dismissed quickly.
Then, there is the Supreme Court factor. For those aware of the Rafale allegations, the Supreme Court’s objection to Gandhi attributing his slogan to it has percolated. The court has castigated the Congress president for raking up the issue, and while Gandhi has expressed regret for bringing in the SC and not for the allegations or the phrase, several voters seem to believe he had to apologise for tarnishing the PM’s image.
‘What is Rafale?’
While what happened in Pulwama and then Balakot is something voters seem to know to a significant extent — sometimes even with conjured up details like how many were killed in Pakistan — there is little understanding of what the Rafale issue is. It often evokes amusing responses.
“Not sure what Rafale is about. It is something about that Mallya who ran away with money. That is what Rahul Gandhi keeps saying,” says Hemraj Rajput.
“I don’t understand the Rafale issue, but neither does Rahul Gandhi. He seems to know as little about it as we do,” says Dheeraj Singh of Banspur village in Sehore district.
“Bina sar-pair ka mudda hai yeh (This issue doesn’t make much sense). People don’t even understand what it is, so why is he going on and on about it, attacking the PM. Maybe he has too much free time,” says Gareeb Das Yadav of Hoshangabad town.
His wife Kamla Yadav says she doesn’t quite follow the news, but knows about Pulwama and Balakot.
BJP strategy seems to be working
The narrative spun around Balakot and its constant mention by BJP’s top leadership seems to be working.
Voters seem to believe the attacks were needed to “show Pakistan its place”. Some even think this may prevent future terror strikes in India, and that “now terrorists killed 40, but if Balakot hadn’t happened, they would have dared to kill 400”. Several feel this displays India’s might.
For many, it is a reiteration of what they hope a government would be — “decisive and unafraid”.
Not even Congress supporters care about Rafale
Ironically, even for those who support the Congress and feel it should come to power at the Centre, Rafale is a non-issue.
“I want to see a Congress government, since it will treat all communities equally and maintain peace. But since you are asking about Rafale, I don’t know about it and it does not quite matter to voters,” says Chaand Mohammad of Hoshangabad.
“As for Balakot, that is all Modi can talk about, that is the only issue he raises, skirting real problems faced by people.”
Other Congress backers have a similar view — a near-disinterest in the Rafale issue raised by Gandhi. This is in sharp contrast to those who back BJP — Modi’s pet issue of Pulwama and Balakot seems to resonate greatly among them.