India’s surgical attacks across the Line of Control will refurbish the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He will be seen to possess a dare lacking in his predecessors, of walking the talk that emphasised a tit-for-tat policy against Pakistan. Through the surgical attacks, Modi has deprived his political rivals of an issue – Pakistan policy – on which they had increasingly become critical of him.
In both Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where campaigns for Assembly elections are already afoot, principal political players have been mocking Modi for failing to usher in acche din, not punishing Pakistan for Pathankot, and for mishandling Kashmir. The Bharatiya Janata Party has now degraded the ammunition marked Pakistan policy and Kashmir.
Even during periods of calm, political parties have seldom made Kashmir a poll issue, the only exception being the BJP. But this had started to change as the prolonged unrest in the Valley – where nearly 90 people have died over two and a half months – was projected to have been symptomatic of Modi’s inability to handle socio-political unrests.
Given the link between Pakistan and the Kashmir problem in the popular consciousness, the nationalistic fervour triggered by the surgical attacks will discourage political parties from blaming the BJP for letting the situation in the Valley deteriorate. This should be of comfort to the BJP, which is the junior partner in the Jammu and Kashmir government. It will now claim to have a more effective style of tackling separatists – by hitting out at their patron, Pakistan.
If the surgical attacks have degraded the political ammunition of the BJP’s rivals, it has provided Modi and the BJP a fresh supply of it. Though it is possible that foreign policy implications might dissuade Modi from puffing his chest out and boasting of ordering the surgical attacks, Sangh Parivar outfits will certainly not be restrained.
For instance, in Shamli, West Uttar Pradesh, hours after the surgical strikes were made public, Bajrang Dal leader Vivek Premi took out a victory procession. Expect more celebrations in the coming days and, therefore, a sharp rise in nationalistic fervour.
It is possible that Pakistan, too, could retaliate with a strategy and time of its choosing. India had undertaken attacks earlier too by crossing the Line of Control and attacking, but no government owned up to it. Modi has. This means Pakistan too can publicise its own wilful violation of the Line of Control. (However, Islamabad won’t do this in case it deploys non-state actors.)
Either way, pressure will mount on Modi to yet again answer violence with violence. This is because he cannot forfeit the political advantages that have accrued to him out of Thursday morning’s surgical attacks. To show restraint against Pakistan’s fresh provocation will level the score 1-1.
However, another retaliatory response from India will only fan the fires of nationalism. It could possibly burn the Opposition (apart from making global powers anxious about South Asia).
So will nationalism do for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab what development did for it, and Modi, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections? In other words, can it cut across the caste-class division in these two states and make anti-Hindutva voters forget their reservations about, or complaints against, the BJP?
This is more likely to happen in Uttar Pradesh than in Punjab.
An indicator of this is that Punjab, unlike other states in the North, was not lured by Modi’s Mr Development persona in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This was because the popular disgust against the Akali Dal-BJP government overshadowed Modi’s appeal. The popular anger in the state has only grown since.
Thus, people in Punjab will likely separate their opposition to the Akali Dal-BJP government from their feelings about Modi’s Pakistan policy. People there want to teach the Akalis a lesson. For historical reasons, the BJP’s vigorous nationalism laced with the tonic of Hinduism has limited appeal in Punjab. This is unlikely to change unless Pakistan takes to cross-border firing there.
It is possible that the mainstream parties – the BJP, Congress and Akali Dal – might take to warning the people in Punjab not to vote for the Aam Aadmi Party, arguing that its relative administrative inexperience could prove costly for a sensitive border state. All three will want to deny power to AAP so that the decades-old political arrangement in the state is not upset. However, a combined attack on an underdog always works to its advantage, as seen in the 2013 and 2015 Assembly polls in Delhi.
Impact on Uttar Pradesh
But Uttar Pradesh is altogether a different case, largely because the BJP is not in power there. It does not have to answer charges of acts of omission and commission. The surgical attacks will be projected as a victory, and the BJP’s rhetoric against Pakistan could become a tool for Hindutva consolidation, and for fusing nationalism with promises of good governance. This is more so as Modi is now Uttar Pradesh’s very own, having become a member of Parliament from Varanasi.
Obviously, Opposition parties – the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress – will hope that Pakistan does not respond to India’s surgical attacks. They will want nationalism to lose its fizz, allow class-caste contradictions to come to the fore, and provide them scope for interrogating Modi on his promise of ushering in acche din. The BJP, by contrast, will want today’s mood to persist till the time the state goes to polls.
Sure, the Congress can claim Modi’s surgical attacks are a replay of what its own Central governments had done in the past but never announced for strategic reasons. This can sound like an accusation against Modi for exaggerating the nature of surgical attacks. In fact, at the all-party meeting following the surgical attacks on Thursday, there were leaders who wanted evidence of the BJP’s claims of having destroyed Pakistan’s terror assets.
It is unlikely that these leaders will adopt such a tone in public. The only exception can be the Left, which has no electoral stake in Uttar Pradesh, but it will need telltale evidence to claim that the Modi government is exaggerating the gains of the surgical attacks. There is nothing to suggest such evidence exists or can be furnished.
When people think India has hit Pakistan hard, it would seem petty and petulant on the part of the Congress to speak of the strategic sagacity it displayed in the past. Even if Pakistan chooses to retaliate against the surgical attacks or, for instance, mistreats the Indian soldier allegedly captured, the Modi government, as already explained, cannot but respond.
All this goes against the BJP’s rivals, who must be shivering at the thought of how in 2014 Modi bagged the votes of the more prosperous Yadavs, who are diehard supporters of the Samajwadi Party, and weaned away a section of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Dalit votes.
It is hard to imagine the Samajwadi Party’s response to the BJP's challenge, as its patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav’s rhetoric on Pakistan and the Army echoes, to a great degree, the BJP’s. The more a party resembles the BJP on aspects of nationalism the more it stands to lose in Uttar Pradesh should the current mood persist or get fanned over the months.
This is why it will be interesting to see the strategy the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati will adopt to counter the BJP. Obviously, she can remind her voters that weeks before, at her rallies in Azamgarh and Saharanpur, she had said: “The Central government can go to war with Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir and terrorism to divert people’s attention from the failure of the BJP and the Centre.” She can adopt the I-told-you posture.
But this strategy will certainly deprive her of upper caste votes, a percentage of which she hopes to gather. Mayawati has to decide whether to opt for expanding her support base or consolidate her Dalit constituency. On her decision depends whether the growing radicalisation of her Dalit supporters will continue.
No doubt, nationalism has a charm for Dalits, as it has for every section of India’s population, but there is also the other attraction working on them. This is best summarised as a question: Can they forget the experience of the last 28 months – Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the Una incident, the adverse impact of cow vigilantism on their traditional professions, the humiliation they have encountered – only because there is the elixir of nationalism to quaff?
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.