Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, as the Bharatiya Janata Party pushes a nationalist narrative following the February 26 Indian Air Force strikes on Pakistan’s Balakot, several Opposition leaders have decided to focus on attacking the Centre for its failed socio-economic policies instead of directly countering the saffron party’s claims.

This is because they are certain that ordinary people have more pressing concerns other than just national security, said senior leaders of various national parties. “We have our ear to the ground,” said Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Manoj Jha. “People are raising questions about jobs, the low prices they are getting for their crops and other problems that impact their lives.”

Jha added Opposition parties were working on a common minimum programme that will include initiatives for the unorganised sector, public health, a common school system and different job generation programmes for rural and urban areas.

“We are looking at programmes that are possible and appeal to the people,” said Jha. “This is what I call real nationalism and not the version being peddled in TV studios.”

Politicising military action

Ever since the Indian Air Force directed bombs at a spot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which, according to the Indian government, destroyed a camp of terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad near Balakot, Modi has consistently attempted to politicise the action. He is pushing the narrative that the BJP was the only party with the will to take on terrorism and Pakistan.

Hours after the strike, Modi, at a rally in Rajasthan, claimed that India was in safe hands and that he would not let the country suffer.

In Delhi, on March 2, Modi criticised the Opposition for questioning the government about its actions. “One of the challenges before the country is some people opposing their own country,” he claimed.

In Patna on March 3, Modi accused Opposition parties of politicising the Balakot strike, claiming that their demand for proof of the damage caused by the operation was demoralising to the armed forces. He also accused the Opposition of making statements that were “beneficial to the enemy”.

Opposition vs BJP

In response to Modi’s charges, some Opposition leaders struck back. They include West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who have questioned the Centre about the air strikes and its silence over the skirmishes between the Indian and Pakistani air forces that saw an Indian pilot being captured and returned.

Twenty-one Opposition parties also released a joint statement on February 27 in which they castigated the BJP for the “blatant politicisation” of sacrifices made by members of the armed forces.

However, no senior Opposition leader has attempted to counter the BJP’s nationalist narrative as consistently and as enthusiastically as the saffron party is propagating it.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi, for instance, has continued to attack Modi over the Rafale deal, rising unemployment, agrarian distress and the weakening economy.

A senior Congress leader, requesting anonymity, said that Gandhi has stuck to his efforts to corner the Centre on socio-economic issues since they “resonate with the people on the ground”.

“Do you think that a man who can’t even manage three square meals for his family would buy this [nationalistic] narrative?” asked the leader. “Or a young boy who has the qualifications and can’t get a job? Will this narrative feed them or their families.”

Bahujan Samaj Party leader Sudhindra Bhadoria concurred. “Wars do not help you win elections, socio-economic policies do,” he said. “India won the 1965 war against Pakistan and when elections were held in 1967, the Congress party for the first time lost in seven states. Similarly, despite winning the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, Indira Gandhi lost elections in 1977. She even lost her own seat.”

The Congress leader said that the statements made by some BJP leaders after the Balakot strikes amounted to scoring self goals. “How does [BJP president Amit] Shah know about the number of those killed when the Air Force doesn’t?” he asked. “Why is [Union minister SS] Ahluwalia saying that the attack was intended to only warn terrorists? Why is [BJP leader] BS Yeddyurappa saying that they will win all 22 seats in Karnataka after these strikes?”

Javed Ali of the Samajwadi Party claimed that Indian voters are dissatisfied with the BJP’s policies and its failure to deliver on any of its 2014 promises, said . He believed that attempts by the BJP to paint the Opposition as “anti-national” would not work. “People want food, jobs, education, better health facilities, higher price for their crops and not television debates,” Ali said. “Except for anchors on TV, no one in India is happy with the performance of the government.”

The media was criticised even by Nawab Malik of the Nationalist Congress Party. It is pointless for the Opposition to attempt to counter the BJP narrative via the mainstream media because the media itself was parroting the ruling party’s line, he said. “Instead, we should inform the people in our rallies how the BJP is playing politics with martyrs,” he said.