Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: File

The terrorist attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, that claimed the lives of 49 paratroopers serving with India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) could prove to be an electoral bonanza for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The convoy attack was the worst terrorist incident in the disputed region in the last 20 years.

Modi’s government has been struggling to deal with accusations that it should have done more to prevent recent bank frauds and to crack down on widespread corruption. Indian opposition parties have been trying to hold Modi and his government accountable for their failure to make good on 2014 electoral promises to create jobs and bring back an estimated US$215 billion of black money currently invested in offshore tax havens. Opposition allegations that India paid far more than it needed to for aircraft purchased from French suppliers through a Modi government deal have been particularly damaging.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s defeats last November and December in five state elections had pushed Modi even further on to the back foot. But the recent terrorist attack in Pulwama will help Modi silence his opposition critics once again, and they could also help his party to improve its performance in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) elections due to be held April and May this year.

The Kashmir attack may also help Modi to consolidate his position within his right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP. Protracted internecine power struggles have beset the BJP since Modi became prime minister in May 2014, but mostly these spats were little more than low-level undercurrents. However, attacks from within the party on himself and his closest associate, BJP chairman Amit Shah, have increased sharply since last October.

Three distinct factions within the BJP have been struggling to control the corridors of power in the world’s largest functioning democracy. Before the Pulwama attack, Modi was under fire from his arch-rival Nitin Gadkari; however, Modi withstood Gadkari’s attacks.

Modi versus RSS

The real kingmaker in the BJP is Mohan Bhagwat, the supremo of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Sangh has been campaigning to declare India a Hindu republic and for the saffronization of India’s social and political lives. RSS has been pushing the BJP and its Hindu nationalist allies to declare a Hindu state before the 100th anniversary of RSS’s foundation in 2025.

RSS picked Modi as a prime-ministerial candidate in 2014 after he won the state elections in Gujarat, using a successful jingoistic campaign that polarized voters.

In 2002, soon after Modi became chief minister of Gujarat state, a train carrying Hindu passengers was allegedly set on fire by an unidentified Muslim group. The incident was later deemed an accident, but increasing tensions between Muslims and Hindus in Gujarat led to riots and the deaths of more than 59 people.

Modi used the 2002 train fire and the resulting riots in Gujarat to crack down on the Muslim minority in the state, which borders Pakistan. Dead bodies were carried from the train to Ahmedabad and used to foment political and sectarian outrage. Riots broke out and about 1,000 people died in sectarian violence. Among them were more than 700 Muslims.

RSS believes that Muslim opposition is the biggest hurdle to declaring India a Hindu republic and that if the tactics used in Gujarat were replicated across India it could pave the way to make India a Hindu nation.

Modi used the 2002 train fire and the resulting riots in Gujarat to crack down on the Muslim minority in the state, which borders Pakistan

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has 342 seats in the Lok Sabha, but 20 more votes are needed for the required two-thirds majority to proclaim India a Hindu country. Despite having a 63% majority in the Lok Sabha, Modi secured the support of fringe parties by offering attractive portfolios.

However, Modi didn’t try to bring a bill to Parliament to amend the constitution to make India a Hindu republic. He also did not deliver on other promises he made – to construct Lord Ram’s temple in Ayodhya, to clean up the River Ganges, and to ban the eating of beef all over India.

So now, a disappointed RSS has decided that the Modi-Shah duo’s authoritarian ways of handling government and the BJP have dismayed its partners in the NDA so much that none of RSS’s other goals are likely to be fulfilled.

RSS is now backing Modi’s rival Gadkari again, largely because many RSS decision-makers come from the Maharatiyan Brahmin. These are so-called upper-caste people from the state of Maharashtra, while Modi and Shah come from lower-caste backgrounds in Gujarat.

Modi versus Gadkari

So RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat now feels that Modi is unable to deliver the Hindu republic that RSS wants and so he is looking again to Nitin Gadkari, the BJP’s former president and one of the most successful ministers in Modi’s cabinet. Gadkari was one of the fiercest and most vocal critics of Modi’s failures, right up to the Pulwama attack.

The most visible pushback against Modi-Shah unilateralism in the government and the BJP came from Gadkari, who delivered a speech in Hindi on January 19 warning that leaders who make electoral pledges they can’t deliver on will be hit with shoes when people realize that the dreams they have been sold will never come true. Gadkari hinted that Modi’s 2014 electoral pledges had become hollow by the end of his five-year tenure in office.

It is not the first time that Gadkari has made stinging statements against Modi. He blasted Modi last October 18, saying that BJP leaders simply made any promises that came to mind in elections before 2014, as they never believed they would get into power and so they would never be held accountable.

Kashmir political solution?

Modi is a first-time prime minister with little knowledge of foreign affairs. He depends heavily on his wily national security adviser, Ajit Doval. Doval has an intelligence background and he likes to use coercion to resolve security problems in both domestic politics and external affairs.

Modi is also impulsive and inexperienced at relying on ministerial advice. However, while some politicians have been trying to use nationalist rhetoric for their own political constituency, Home Minister Rajnath Singh is a seasoned politician who has examined the intractable insurgency in Kashmir closely. Singh has suggested that a political solution is needed in Kashmir now rather than counterinsurgency measures.

Considering the long-standing nature of the political disputes over Kashmir, Singh has highlighted the need for dialogue and real engagement with all the stakeholders there. Singh took some key steps such as giving an amnesty to stone throwers and he brokered a unilateral ceasefire in the Ramzan as a confidence-building initial step toward brokering a long-term political solution.

However, the BJP tilted Kashmir’s elected government by removing its support for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and the move was engineered by BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav, and Singh was not even informed. Those with deep knowledge of the Kashmir conflict believe that the Pulwama attack was the result of a chauvinistic approach by the Modi team.

A political leader close to Singh, who spoke on condition anonymity, told a source: “New cracks have formed, and old cracks have been widening and deepening within the BJP, although Modi seems [to be] on the front foot right now.”

Modi’s last chance

The Pulwama terrorist attack has provided Modi with a chance to make electoral gains, and so the BJP could win the upcoming Lok Sabha elections with an absolute majority. But if there is a shortfall and he doesn’t win with a clear majority, Modi will not remain as prime minister and his ally Amit Shah will no longer be the BJP national chairman. So Modi has been stepping up his efforts to win a second term as prime minister.

Modi has been using rhetoric to try to convince people that opposing him is an anti-nationalist and traitorous act while supporting him is an act of patriotism. India’s mainstream print and electronic media have also been contributing to Modi’s jingoism. Media outlets have been glossing over the fact that the Indian Army is now severely understaffed and under-equipped, and that it was underprepared and under-equipped for combat in the snows of the high Himalayas in the Kargil War of 1999. Back then, many stories were not published in case they harmed India’s “national interest.” Now the same thing is happening after the Pulwama attack.

Just as in 1999, the Indian media seem to be helping Modi’s electoral propaganda machine by highlighting coverage of the Indian Air Force’s strike against Balakot in Pakistan. These reports gloss over the fact that the home minister has been sidelined, and his Kashmir policy dumped, and focus instead on Modi’s adoption of the muscular policy of a chauvinist former intelligence operative.

Caravan magazine’s political editor, Hartosh Singh Bal, wrote in The New York Times, “In the rhetoric of martyrdom that prevails in Modi’s India, editors across the country are leaving out inconvenient facts and questions. It may be or may not be in the national interest, but it is certainly in Modi’s interest.” The political analysts’ guesstimate is that if the BJP wins 200 or more seats, but is short of a majority, then Nitin Gadkari will be the next prime minister.

However, if the BJP wins fewer than 200 seats and needs a consensual face, it’s more likely that Rajnath Singh will be the next prime minister. Singh has been mostly taciturn in the face of Modi’s every move because he anticipates that the prime minister’s failures make it more likely that he could one day become PM himself.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.

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