The crisis in Ukraine has provided another plank for the Bharatiya Janata Party to seek votes in the Uttar Pradesh elections now underway. At elections rallies over the past few days, BJP leaders have made unverified claims that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being consulted by world leaders about how to resolve the conflict.

Party leaders are also highlighting New Delhi’s efforts to bring back the 18,000 or so Indian students stranded in Ukraine.

However, opposition leaders have contested these claims, sharing videos of Indian students in Ukraine who have facing great difficulty leaving the country.

Ukraine pradesh

In recent days, Modi has used the Russia-Ukrainian war at least four times in speeches asking voters to re-elect his party in Uttar Pradesh.

In an election rally on February 22, he said that countries are facing global turmoil and the future seems uncertain. “In such a situation, India needs to be strong,” he said. “This is important not just for India, but for the sake of all of humankind.”

The responsibility of running a big country and a big state like Uttar Pradesh should be given to a tough leader, Modi argued: “Tough times need tough leaders.”

At an election rally in Basti on Sunday, Modi said that the Union government is doing everything it can to help stranded come home with an initiative called “Operation Ganga” – a name that reflects the largest river in the poll-bound state. He said that these times are sending a message to all Indians that India needs to be as powerful and atmanirbharor self-reliant.

On Monday, in Maharajganj, hinting at the Ukrainian crisis, he told the crowd that the world is going through a challenging time, and that India’s defences need to be strengthened. “This time your vote is as much for local issues, as for making India and Uttar Pradesh strong,” he said.

On Wednesday, in Robertsganj, he highlighted Operation Ganga again. “It is due to India’s rising strength that we are able to safely evacuate our nationals stuck in Ukraine, for which we are running Operation Ganga,” he claimed.

A screenshot of the Narendra Modi app claiming success in bringing students back from Ukraine.

Attacking the opposition

BJP leaders have also used the Ukraine issue as a plank to attack the opposition in Uttar Pradesh.

During his Sunday rally, Modi said that in these uncertain times, again referring obliquely to the Ukraine crisis, India’s defence forces have to be upgraded every year. This work cannot be done by people who are “ghor pariwarwadi, ghor swarthi”, extremely nepotistic and selfish, he claimed.

Modi was possibly hinting at the Congress, which had been embroiled in the Bofors defence scam in the 1980s, and the Samajwadi Party which he has often accused of practising “dynasty politics”.

“Those whose history has been embroiled in taking commissions during defence deals and neglecting defence requirements cannot make the nation stronger,” he said, arguing that the Ukrainian crisis has shown that India needs a strong government like the BJP.

On Sunday, in an election rally in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, Rajnath Singh, the Union defence minister, said that previously no one wanted to listen to India but under Modi, everyone wants to hear what India has to say. “No words will be enough to commend the immense role Modi is playing to ensure peace in the Russia-Ukraine crisis,” he added.

Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, during an election campaign in Jaunpur said that while Modi was conducting “Mission Ganga”, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav was run “Mission danga” or riots.

Fleeing from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, university students from India cross the border by foot in Barabas, Hungary, on February 28, 2022. Credit: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP.

India’s strength

Many party leaders have also talked about the strength of the Indian state under the Modi-led BJP government. They claim that the world is looking to Modi to resolve the crisis.

While campaigning during an election rally in Ballia, Hema Malini, a Lok Sabha member from the BJP, said that Modi is immensely respected around the world. “The entire world looks up to him”, she claimed. “Everyone is now requesting Modiji to stop the Russia-Ukraine war since he is regarded as a big world leader.”

On Monday, Keshav Prasad Maurya, the deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, claimed that as soon as the students who are stranded in Ukraine display the Indian flag, neither Russian nor Ukrainian forces harm them.

Contrary to Maurya’s claims, however, one Indian student has been killed in Ukraine. There are also reports of racial discimination against Indians by the Ukrainian authorities at border posts. Some videos have shows Indians being assaulted by border authorities.

Opposition leaders response

The BJP’s claims have not gone uncontested.

On Tuesday, Akhilesh Yadav shared a video of an Indian student stranded in Ukraine. The student in the video said that while other countries were evacuating their citizens, the Indian government was not doing anything for them.

“Here the BJP is using false praise for saving Indians in the elections, while the truth in Ukraine is frightening,” Yadav wrote.

Even Priyanka Gandhi, general secretary of the Congress, shared a video of a student from Lucknow who was stuck in Kyiv. In the video, the woman said that she and her friends would not be able to survive in Ukraine without government help.

“I request the government to do everything they can so that the students return safely,” Gandhi said in her tweet.

Congress leader Randeep Surjewala tweeted that BJP campaigners were being self-indulgent while thousands of Indian students in Ukraine were waiting to return home.

A TV news show using the analogy that Modi's purported firefighting on the Russia-Ukraine crisis is like Hindu god Shiva saving the world from Armageddon.

Modi’s international image

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Even in previous elections, the BJP has portrayed Modi as a tough leader on the global stage, someone who can take decisive actions against India’s neighbours such as China and Pakistan and secure the country’s borders against undocumented immigrants.

Since coming to power, the BJP has often referred to India as a vishwaguru, a teacher of the world, a phrase that has been used by many in the party and sympathetic media outlets, to project the contention that India has become a world leader under Modi’s leadership.