So game, set and match to Prime Minister Narendra Modi? With just over two months left for the general election verdict to come in, the predominant sense, whether in the stock market, satta bazaar, street conversations or among pollsters, appears to be that it is all over, bar the shouting. What apparently remains to be seen is whether the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would breach the majority mark on its own or with the support of its alliance partners.
The difference a month makes
It was not like this a month ago. The buzz at the time was that a second term for Mr. Modi was far from being certain. With the Opposition giving the impression of nimble-footed alliances in different States, Mr. Modi and BJP president Amit Shah for once looked beaten in their own ‘always one step ahead’ department.
And then the Pulwama suicide terror ambush on Indian soldiers happened, followed by India’s retaliatory bombing of Jaish-e-Mohammad terror base in Balakot in Pakistan, followed in turn by the latter capturing and then returning an Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot. The script changed many times in the stressful days after Pulwama, but at the end of it India had two heroes. One, Abhinandan Varthaman, the captured Wing Commander who returned home to rousing war cries and tales of stellar bravery while in the ‘enemy’ country’s custody. Two, Prime Minister Modi, who, in the words of his fawning followers, among them TV journalists, had done the “unthinkable” and “undoable” in ordering air strikes deep into Pakistan’s territory. In this narration, the last time action had been undertaken targeting Pakistani territory was during the 1971 war, after which a succession of lily-livered Prime Ministers had allowed Pakistan-sponsored terror a free run. A TV anchor gushed that it took just “one man” to shed the pusillanimity of past regimes and show Pakistan its place.
Mr. Modi’s daring seemed perfectly timed to take advantage of a slogan the government had coined to advertise its accomplishments: Na mumkin ab mumkin hai (the impossible is possible now). In the hands of Mr. Modi’s adoring party, the slogan transformed into “Modi hai to mumkin hai (if Modi is there, it is possible)”. To nobody’s surprise, the slogan found pride of place on billboards and on the social media timelines of the Prime Minister’s flag-waving fans, some of whom even ensured Twitter trended #SayYesToWar. Mr. Modi’s ‘56-inch chest’, which had receded from sight in the days after the BJP’s defeat in the November 2018 round of State elections, also made a triumphant return while the BJP and the Prime Minister himself blurred the line between the armed forces and the executive.
On BJP hoardings, the Prime Minister was featured alongside IAF fighter jets and Wing Commander Varthaman. At a rally in Greater Noida on March 9, he pilloried the “tukde tukde gang” (euphemism for civil society and liberals) for doubting the Balakot air attacks when Pakistan was crying that “Modi aa kar ke maar ke chala gaya (Modi came here and hit us)”. The Election Commission of India has ordered the removal of the offending hoardings, but who will expunge the Prime Minister’s words or stop them from being circulated?
That the Prime Minister has a plethora of ways to lampoon his opponents is known, of course. In one of his jibes, he gave a spin to the terms BC and AD, saying these must now be understood as “Before Congress” and “After Dynasty”. By the same token, the BJP’s prospects in 2019 can probably be divided into before and after Pulwama. If preceding the Pulwama attack, the BJP seemed a little lost in contrast to the Opposition’s gung-ho form, the reverse has happened after the terror attack. The BJP has appropriated the nationalist plank, all cylinders firing, leaving the Opposition looking confused and unpatriotic.
The BJP has specified the no-go areas: no doubts on the Balakot air strikes, no mention of the intelligence failure that led to the Pulwama massacre, no questions to the Prime Minister or the government, even on the Rafale deal. In a much-publicised interaction with a TV journalist, senior Cabinet Minister Piyush Goyal made it clear that the government, the armed forces and the country were to be accorded the same respect and treated as an indistinguishable whole. And anyone breaching the red lines would be treated as a friend of Pakistan.
Adversity to advantage
Mr. Modi’s record shows an uncanny ability to turn adversity to advantage. He took charge as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001 to almost no indication of the superstardom awaiting him. He scraped through his first ever election held on February 24, 2002 to Rajkot-II, while the BJP lost other byelections held simultaneously. This was three days before the Godhra train carnage. The rest, as they say, is history. All questions on intelligence failure were buried as the State plunged into violence against Muslims. With that Mr. Modi became Gujarat’s Hindu Hriday Samrat, and his career scaled spectacular milestones, paving the way for his eventual rise to Prime Minister.
Likewise with the November 8, 2016 demonetisation. The policy was a disaster in the making. Yet in Mr. Modi’s mesmerising words, it became all about sacrifice, valour and nation-building. The crackdown on black money would succeed only with the sacrifice and cooperation of the people, he said, even as he drew a parallel with the “jawan on the border” who took bullets for the nation. The response to this was electric as people standing in queues to exchange their devalued currency parroted the “jawan on the border” line. By the time the severe downside of demonetisation kicked in, the BJP had won its biggest Assembly victory in U.P.
Today, the “jawan on the border” is no longer a metaphorical invocation. He is a flesh and blood figure who has shown that he will die for his country. And the BJP is once again calling upon people to rise up and support the armed forces and the government. The election-eve political messaging, conveyed by Mr. Shah and others, is that the country’s security will be in peril if Mr. Modi is defeated.
Issues versus slogans
This is not an easy script to counter. From the Opposition, Congress president Rahul Gandhi has shown an unflagging ability to engage with critical issues. He has raised the Rafale deal and hinted at intelligence failure, refusing to be deterred by the government’s faux-nationalist sabre-rattling. But it is clear that the Balakot air strikes have energised the BJP cadre and changed the overall political mood to an extent where defectors to the BJP are positing Mr. Modi’s ‘courage’ against the Opposition’s ‘cowardice’.
It seems the BJP’s dismal record on all fronts — sinking economy, debilitating unemployment, farm distress and deepening social fissures — will be forgotten, as the party stitches up smart alliances and wins over estranged partners to deafening drum-beats of nationalism. And yet, the BJP has some hard realities to confront. In U.P. the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, now allies, have each a base vote which adds up to about 40% of the electorate. This has held through ups and downs even in the 2014 election. The same is the case in Karnataka, with the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) now in a pre-poll alliance. The BJP has reached saturation performance in as many as 10 States, and there is only so much it can do to in other States. Can it pull off an encore to the roll of the war drum?
Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy