Welcome to The Election Fix, Sunday edition. On Mondays and Thursdays we bring you all the news, analysis and opinions that you need to pay attention to during polling season in India. But on the Sunday issues of the newsletter, we would like to take a closer look at one theme that will play a significant role in India’s Lok Sabha elections.

This week, we look at national security, from how this government has fared to whether voters factor it into their decision-making and also where things stand in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Tell us what themes we should look at in coming weeks by emailing rohan@scroll.in. I’d like to thank Navin, Shahid, Kadayam, Nasir and Ameya for sending notes and suggestions about previous issues of the Election Fix, which you can find here. And if you haven’t already, subscribe here to get the Election Fix in your inbox, and also pay for quality journalism by subscribing to Scroll+.

In January, when both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party came out with competing income guarantee schemes, it seemed as if the 2019 elections might be fought primarily on economic grounds. But the suicide bombing in Pulwama, in which 40 paramilitary jawans were killed, and the subsequent Indian Air Force strike on Balakot, in Pakistan, altered the conversation. Suddenly questions of national security were front and centre.

Less than 4% of respondents to the C-Voter State of the Nation survey thought national security was the biggest problem the country faced in January, yet that number climbed up to more than 25% after Pulwama and Balakot. Indeed, as of March, respondents to the survey said it was more important than unemployment.

This may not last. Indeed, the conversation is already shifting. But there is no doubt that, with elections less than a month away, it will still be on people’s minds.

Recap

  • February 14: A suicide bomber drove a car filled with explosives into a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir, killing 40 jawaans. Pakistani terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest on Indian forces since 1989.
  • February 26: South Asia woke up to tensions after Pakistan claimed that Indian jets had invaded their airspace and dropped bombs on Balakot, claiming nothing was hit. India later said it had struck a Jaish terror camp, killing a “large number” of terrorists. It is still unclear what the impact of the Indian strike was.
  • February 27: Pakistani jets crossed the Line of Control and dropped bombs on Indian territory, followed by an aerial dogfight in which India claims to have hit one Pakistani F16, while Pakistan says it shot down two Indian jets. Details of the dogfight are still scarce, but one Indian jet did come down since its pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured by Pakistan and released to India a few days later.

In the last issue of the Election Fix we looked at whether the BJP is getting a ‘Balakot bump’, a surge in support because of the focus on national security and the Opposition’s decision to remain quiet.

But today we would like to go beyond, looking at how this government and its predecessor has fared on questions of security, both internal and external, how the political parties are messaging around it, whether voters care and what it means for elections in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

For the record

Though it is generally believed that a Right-wing regime, especially one that promises a muscular approach to governance, would be good for national security, experts have over the past year or so pointed out that Modi’s record on this front is relatively patchy.

National security is inextricably linked with foreign policy and, particularly in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, with domestic policy as well. Modi government has certainly had what it sees as successes on this front, taking on China at Doklam, the surgical strikes following the Uri attack and the Balakot strike. His government also brought in a form of One Rank One Pension, quelling some unhappiness among veterans, and has cleared the way for women to get permanent commission in sections of the military.

But the government is accused of failing to live up to expectations on a number of systemic issues: Its neighbourhood-first foreign policy has not achieved much, its militaristic approach to Kashmir has seen a spike in militancy and its proud-of-our-soldiers bark has not been met by budgetary bite.

The latter in fact was much commented on when the 2018 Budget saw defence expenditure as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product at the lowest it has been since the 1962 war, though this may be somewhat skewed by the government’s update about how it calculates the size of the Indian economy:

A look at some expert analyses from both hawks and doves last year:

  • Srinath Raghavan, Centre for Policy Research: “The government has yet to undertake serious reforms of the structures of national security management. What’s worse, it has weakened and complicated the existing ones.”
  • HS Panag, retired Lieutenant General: “In the last four years, no reforms have been carried out with respect to higher defence management. National security strategy has not been formalised. There is no formal force development strategy either. Modernisation of the armed forces is at a standstill for want of adequate budget.”
  • Brahma Chellaney, Centre for Policy Research: “When Modi won the 2014 national election, critics said they feared his strongman tendencies – a fear they still profess. But in office, Modi has been anything but strong or aggressive in his policies.

Key player

It is impossible to talk about Modi’s national security record without talking about National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. The former spy was portrayed by the mainstream media as an Indian James Bond who could single-handedly solve all of the country’s problems (including political ones for the BJP). Instead, his tenure has been at best a mixed bag, even though that hasn’t stopped Modi from continuing to centralise power in his hands. For a deep dive on Doval, read Praveen Donthi’s profile in the Caravan.

Poll toon:

Politicking

Now that we’ve got an overview of the policy side, it is time to look at the politics. This election is likely to be as much about optics as facts on the ground. Take the Pulwama-Balakot incidents, for example. The situation ended with Pakistan handing over an Indian pilot whom it had captured, after its jets attacked Indian military installations (facing no retaliation). Yet, thanks to his political capital, Modi has managed to sell even this as a victory for India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a public rally in Churu, Rajasthan on 26 February
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a public rally in Churu, Rajasthan on 26 February

The image-building here is important to pay attention to. The government flew the body of one of the dead CRPF jawans from Jammu and Kashmir to Delhi and then back to Jammu and Kashmir, so that the prime minister could pay respects to the dead. On the day of the Balakot strike, Modi appeared at a political rally in front of a poster that had pictures of the dead CRPF jawans on it.

After the aerial dogfight, however, Modi did not address the nation for days, showing up instead at BJP political events despite tensions with Pakistan. Once Islamabad decided to release Abhinandan Varthaman, however, his face began appearing on BJP posters, at least until the Election Commission gave an order against this.

What of the Opposition? After Pulwama, Congress President Rahul Gandhi said his party and the Opposition were united behind the government. Others in his party have been more scathing about the BJP, but the Congress chief has by and large stayed away from directly attacking the government, worried that such criticism could backfire.

Still the Congress has not stayed away from the issue altogether. The party signed up Lieutenant General DS Hooda, who oversaw the 2016 surgical strikes, onto a task force that will put together a vision for national security. It is expected that this will be unveiled around the same time as the Congress manifesto.

Other parties have not been as quiet as the Congress, particularly after BJP President Amit Shah claimed that 250 terrorists were killed in the Balakot strike, even though the defence minister said the government will not give out a number.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took on the government most sharply, accusing Modi of “doing opportunistic politics over the dead bodies of jawans” and even said that the long election season was aimed at facilitating another strike, as part of the BJP’s plan.

Do voters care?

In a country where access to food, electricity and employment remains an issue, is national security likely to matter to voters, and will that make a difference? As pointed out in Thursday’s issue, the opinion polling on this is divided, not showing a clear advantage to the BJP, even though the CVoter data suggests people are concerned about the issue.

A few analysts last week suggested it was unlikely to be a “game changer”:

  • Roshan Kishore pointed out that if the strikes also lead to polarisation it would certainly consolidate the BJP’s base, but in a First Past the Post system, that might not lead to much change in the final seat count.
  • Neelanjan Sircar looked at the results of the 1998 election, which saw BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee come to power with a shaky coalition that soon fell apart – though only after a decisive India victory over Pakistan in the Kargil War. The results of the 1999 election ended up being similar for the BJP, suggesting the war was not a major electoral game-changer, though the party did gain in those states where it went head-to-head against the Congress rather than a regional party.
  • The Quint’s Aditya Menon points out something similar: It should help the BJP in direct fights with the Congress, but may not matter elsewhere.
  • A separate indicator comes from Seshadri Chari former editor of the Right-wing newspaper, Organiser, who wrote that the “backroom boys” for the BJP have realised they cannot only bank on Balakot and are now trying to spend as much time talking about social schemes.

Focus: Jammu & Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir has six Lok Sabha seats, with the election split over five phases, from April 11 to May 6.

The last five years have been a roller-coaster ride in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2014, the BJP won all the non-Kashmir valley Lok Sabha seats – Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh – while the People’s Democratic Party won the three Kashmir seats, Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag. A similar story played out in December of that year, when these two parties emerged with the largest number of seats in the state Assembly elections, eventually leading to a historic coming together of the Right-wing BJP and the PDP, traditionally a party close to separatists, to form an alliance to run the state government.

Things did not go well with the alliance, however, and the differences between the two parties led to the erosion of the mainstream political space in the state. The rise in both militant recruitment and anti-militant operations came with this shrinking of the political sphere, so much that the government has been unable to hold the bye-poll for the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat vacated by Mehbooba Mufti in 2016.

In 2018, the BJP pulled out of the state alliance, meaning the Assembly elections should have been held alongside Lok Sabha polls. But the Election Commission said that it would not be doing so because of constraints on security forces, and instead, we have the unusual sight of a single Lok Sabha seat having its voting split over three different phases.

The PDP’s fate, after tying up with the BJP, may be one of the main questions of the elections. Talks between the National Conference and the Congress for an alliance still appear to be stuck over seat sharing. The BJP meanwhile, particularly after the mobilisation over the Kathua rape case, is expected to reap political dividends from the two Jammu seats, though there are some questions about its chances in Ladakh.

For a full primer on what has happened with Kashmir over the last five years, read Ipsita Chakrvarty’s piece in The Modi Years series, which offers ready reckoners on all the major initiatives and milestones of this government.

Did we miss any analysis that you thought were relevant? Send thoughts, suggestions and WhatsApp forwards to rohan@scroll.in.