Updated at 10:07 a.m. ET on 2019-03-01
Nationwide outrage over a militant assault that killed at least 40 security personnel in Indian Kashmir last week and escalated tensions with rival Pakistan could boost India’s Hindu nationalist government ahead of an imminent general election, analysts said Tuesday.
Last Thursday’s suicide bombing “can come as a major boon” for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which lost power in three heartland states through local polls held in December, according to one expert.
“For a party that basks in nationalism and anti-Pakistan rhetoric, the [Kashmir] attack is a godsend for Modi and BJP. While the governing coalition will be mindful not to escalate the crisis into a full-blown war, it will do everything to keep the pot boiling until the conclusion of elections,” Niranjan Sahoo, a political expert at the Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank in New Delhi, told BenarNews.
A Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), claimed it carried out the car-bombing that killed 40 Indian troops in Pulwama district.
The attack, described as the deadliest militant strike in strife-torn Kashmir in decades, unleashed anti-Pakistan protests across India even as Modi’s government sprung into action to isolate Islamabad diplomatically and warn its neighbor of potential military retaliation.
“Severe conflict with arch-rival Pakistan does help electorally if the ruling dispensation handles it effectively,” Sahoo said.
Muslim-majority Kashmir has grappled with a separatist insurgency that has killed more than 70,000 people since the late 1980s. The region is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, who have fought two wars over it, and whose territories are separated by a de facto border, the Line of Control (LoC).
The Indian national elections are expected to take place in stages between April and May.
Yet, Sahoo cautioned, a nationalistic campaign in the run-up to elections could “badly backfire” if the government failed to provide an effective response to Pakistan, which has denied any involvement in the Feb. 14 Kashmir attack.
“The political opposition is going to milk the crisis by exposing the government and its failure to deal with terrorism in Kashmir and for its failure to deal with Pakistan,” the analyst said.
However, another political scientist disagreed that parties in India would use the attack to garner votes.
“The whole country is united in this matter. Anyone who tries to make it [the Kashmir attack] an election issue will suffer,” Subhash Kashyap, who is associated with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, told BenarNews.
The BJP was defeated in recent state assembly elections in key states, including in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, because of the party’s perceived failure to create jobs and increase low incomes of rural populations.
Yogendra Yadav, a political activist, said the BJP would use the Kashmir attack to divert attention from such economic challenges faced by the government.
“The consequence [of the attack] would be to bring the spotlight on issues of national security, which is exactly what the ruling party may have wanted,” the Reuters news agency quoted Yadav as saying.
Sandeep Shastri, director of the Bengaluru-based Jain University’s Center for Research in Social Science and Education, warned that any “ill-planned adventurism” by the BJP to use the nationalistic sentiment for votes could boomerang.
“The Modi government will likely weigh the political and electoral consequences before initiating any step,” he told BenarNews.
‘Hell bent’ on retaliation
During a speech at a political rally in northeastern Assam state, BJP President Amit Shah underscored Modi’s political will to eliminate terrorism.
“The cowardly act by Pakistan of attacking our soldiers will be given a befitting reply. You have elected Narendra Modi as your leader, and he will ensure that terrorism is uprooted. The BJP government does not compromise on matters of national security,” Shah said.
A spokesman for the BJP, who asked to remain anonymous, said the Modi government was “hell-bent on retaliating against the recent attack, because that is the policy of this government. The upcoming elections have nothing to do with this policy, which has been a constant ever since BJP came to power in 2014.”
Meanwhile, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said Tuesday that if India launched an armed attack on Pakistani soil, his government’s forces would retaliate.
“I understand it is India’s election year and blaming Pakistan would make it easier to get votes from the masses. But I hope better sense will prevail and India agrees to a dialogue,” Khan said in a video message broadcast in Pakistan.
“I have been hearing and seeing on Indian media that politicians there are calling for revenge from Pakistan. If India thinks it will attack Pakistan, then we will not just think but retaliate,” Khan said.
He also guaranteed that his government would act against the perpetrators of the Kashmir attack if India provided Islamabad with “actionable intelligence” that a Pakistani was involved.
Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry went to far as to suggest that Modi was the “primary beneficiary” of the Kashmir attack, in which a militant rammed a bomb-laden car into a 78-vehicle convoy ferrying more than 2,500 paramilitary personnel along a highway in Pulwama.
“Apparently, it seems that Modi, who is contesting elections and appears to be losing, has benefitted from it [the attack]. He seems desperate to create a conflict,” Chaudhry said in a talk show on Pakistan’s Geo TV, according to the Times of India.
CORRECTION: An earlier version reported incorrectly that nearly 50 troops were killed in the car-bombing.