India: Post-Airstrike Patriotic Fervor May Boost BJP in Polls, Analysts Say

Jaishree Balasubramanian
New Delhi
190318-IN-Modi-1000.jpg Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays his respects in front of the body of Chief Minister of Goa and former Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, who died of natural causes at age 63 over the weekend, during his funeral in Panaji, March 18, 2019.

Updated at 7:48 a.m. ET on 2019-03-19

A surge of patriotism in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent decision to send warplanes to bomb a suspected militant camp in Pakistan could lift his Hindu nationalist party to victory in next month’s general election, analysts say.

Polls in the world’s most populous democracy will unfold in seven stages, starting on April 11 and lasting into May, with nearly 900 million citizens eligible to vote, according to the country’s election commission. Vote results are scheduled to be announced May 23.

“Till the attack in Pulwama, the BJP was somewhat on the back foot,” Smita Gupta, a political analyst with the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, a local think-tank, told BenarNews, referring to a Feb. 14 car-bomb attack that killed 40 government troops in a district of Indian Kashmir. The bombing led

Modi’s government to retaliate by ordering an airstrike over Pakistan on Feb. 26, where, according to New Delhi, the militant group blamed for the attack was based.

After the airstrike that targeted a suspected Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) camp in Balakot, Pakistan, “the prime minister and his cabinet members seized on the situation, and the opposition got entangled in side issues,” Gupta said.

But before Modi dispatched warplanes into Pakistani airspace, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads India’s governing alliance, had been facing criticism over rising unemployment in the country, the plight and distress of farmers in rural areas, and other economic issues, according to Gupta and other observers.

Main contenders

The BJP will be vying in the upcoming polls against the main opposition Congress Party, whose leaders have criticized the airstrike. The aerial operation escalated military tensions between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, until eased following the March 1 release of an Indian fighter pilot, whom the Pakistanis had captured after shooting down his MiG-21 plane inside Pakistani territory.

But last week, Tom Vadakkan, a senior Congress leader and spokesman for the party, switched sides and joined the BJP in protest over the controversy around the airstrike.

“The attack by Pakistani terrorists on our land and the reaction from ‘my party’ was sad indeed. It hurts me deeply when you question the integrity of the armed forces. That is precisely why I am here, this is not about ideology but love for the nation,” Vadakkan told reporters.

He was referring to calls by Congress and other parties demanding proof from the government that the JeM camp in Balakot had been destroyed.

“The Pulwama terror attack was a grave national security and intelligence failure of the Modi government,” Randeep Surjewala, a spokesman for Congress, told BenarNews.

The national spokesman for BJP, however, expressed confidence that the ruling party would return to power with a clear majority.

“The Balakot air strike sent an unequivocal signal that the Modi government is capable of taking every step to protect the country against terrorism,” Nalin Kohli told BenarNews.

The government’s welfare and health schemes, its focus on boosting the economy as well as its efforts to improve the nation’s infrastructure have “changed the lives of millions of Indians” since the BJP first came to power five years ago, he added.

The party or coalition that takes 272 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, or lower house of India’s parliament, will secure a simple majority needed to win the election.

Congress, which BJP wiped out in the 2014 national polls, is campaigning hard to return to power.

“In 2019, we are re-innovating governance with a new set of ideas like a minimum income guarantee, the right to healthcare, agricultural reforms and compulsory participation of women, etc.,” said Surjewala, the party’s spokesman. “This evolutionary thinking will endear us to the people and bring us back to power.”

Congress is led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty whose father, grandmother and great-grand father had all served as Indian prime ministers. His sister, Priyanka, has stepped in to help with campaigning. The party is banking on the “Gandhi” name to woo the electorate.

The BJP will be going into the general election having lost control of three key states through state assembly defeats at the hands of Congress in December.

Since then, the opposition party had put the BJP on the defensive by questioning the government about rising joblessness, low prices for farmers’ crops and a deal to buy French-made Rafale fighter jets. But the Feb. 26 airstrikes has shifted the momentum through a wave of patriotism that could bolster the BJP’s chances in the run-up to the general election, observers said.

“After the Pulwama terrorist attack and the Balakot airstrikes, a surge of patriotism will make Indians vote for Prime minister Modi as the man who finally took action against Pakistan,”  according to Wire, an online news portal.

In Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state, which lies on the Indian-controlled side of the Kashmir region, the general election will be held on April 11, 18, 23, 29 and May 6.

However, there will be no state assembly polls this year because the insurgency-stricken region is currently under direct rule by New Delhi. In June 2018, India’s central government declared it was taking over governance of J&K, after the BJP pulled out of the ruling coalition in the state, where Indian security forces have struggled to contain a Kashmiri separatist rebellion.

“The Election Commission should have announced the state assembly polls, too. Direct rule from Delhi cannot be a substitute to a local elected government in this strife-torn region,” Noor Baba, a Srinagar-based political analyst, told BenarNews.

“An elected government also cannot help bring peace to the region, but at least people can get their day-to-day issues resolved by having access to local representatives. For lasting peace, the leadership of India and Pakistan must hold talks with separatists to resolve the bilateral issues including Kashmir, which is the main source of tension between them,” he said.

Mainstream political parties have been demanding that local elections be held alongside the general polls in the state, but the Election Commission has not yet announced any dates.

The northeast

Elsewhere, the seven states that form India’s northeast account for 25 parliamentary seats.

The region was mainly a Congress stronghold until 2014, when BJP made inroads into the northeastern states by winning seats.

“The BJP’s focus now will be the 25 seats, but its stance on  the Citizenship Amendment bill, which proposes to grant citizenship to Hindu refugees, has not gone down well with the indigenous population of the region, and which may ultimately give the Congress a chance to make a comeback in the region,”  political analyst Monirul Hussain told BenarNews.

According to Smita Gupta, the expert at the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, India’s ruling party will likely return to power in late May.

“It still looks like BJP may be the single largest party. But in Indian politics, even a day is a long time. Anything can happen,” she told Benar.

Mohammad Amin Pirzada and Jhumur Deb contributed to this report from Srinagar and Guwahati, India.

CORRECTION: An earlier version misidentified analyst Smita Gupta as a man.


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