On February 26, this was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s schedule: address a political rally in Rajasthan’s Churu around 1 pm, return in time to take a ride on the Delhi Metro and pose for selfies, arrive at the ISKCON-Glory of India Cultural Centre to unveil a giant Bhagavad Gita weighing 800 kilogrammes.
This on a day when the Indian government said the air force struck targets in Pakistan in retaliation for the suicide attack in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district on February 14, for which the Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility. This is reportedly the first time the Indian Air Force had crossed the Line of Control since the 1971 Bangladesh War.
As the day wore on, it appeared that Indian planes had struck targets deep inside Pakistani territory in Balakot, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. But the press briefing on the operation was addressed by the foreign secretary. The all-parties meeting to discuss it with the Opposition was convened by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, not the prime minister.
Modi’s decision to stay away from official addresses and go about attending pre-scheduled events may be part of a carefully calibrated strategy. In the aftermath of Pulwama, the government had said that it would give the armed forces a free hand to retaliate as and when they chose. The strikes may then be read as a functional security operation rather than an act of political aggression.
The foreign secretary’s briefing suggested it was a “non-military preemptive strike”, picking out Jaish camps, avoiding civilian casualties and even Pakistani military targets. It gives both sides room to de-escalate: Pakistan’s official claim that there were no casualties may relieve it of the pressure to retaliate, despite the initial bluster.
But already the operation has dovetailed neatly into Modi’s domestic political rhetoric. At the BJP rally in Churu, pictures of the Central Reserve Police Force personnel killed in Pulwama hung behind the prime minister, he assured audiences that the “country was in safe hands”, he pumped both fists in the air and exhorted the crowd to shout “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. During the metro ride, the prime minister was photographed talking to two Muslim men, among other passengers, and at the ISKCON event to unveil the Gita, he urged the public to “not be divisive”.
But these gestures were not enough to break the subtle hyphenation of Hindutva rhetoric with military achievement, the suggestion that the prime minister’s personal derring do was involved in somehow avenging Pulwama.
Infusing triumphalist electoral politics into what should be sober matters of national security is a dangerous tactic. First, because brinkmanship to domestic audiences may eventually push both countries to abandon restraint. Second, because of the poison it will unleash in a political discourse already hopped up on a heavy dose of jingoism.
If the attacks on Kashmiris across the country after Pulwama are anything to go by, it is a jingoism that manifests itself in an ugly mob frenzy directed at minorities. But Modi’s itinerary on Tuesday suggested that, as with the so-called surgical strikes of 2016, the latest operations are going to become part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s arsenal this election season. It is going to be politics as usual.