India's PM Narendra Modi speaks during the inauguration of a hydro power plant in Kashmir earlier this month. The Archbishop of Delhi has called for a prayer campaign until the next election, accusing Modi's party, the BJP, of threatening the country's secular fabric. Photo: Reuters/ Danish Ismail
India's PM Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters/ Danish Ismail

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making every effort possible to turn the forthcoming general election into a ballot on national security. The Narendra Modi-led BJP is leaving no stone unturned to exploit the Indian Air Force strikes in Balakot, Pakistan for electoral gains.

The strikes were a response to a terrorist attack in Pulwama in Kashmir on February 14. Before the strikes took place on February 26, the BJP spokesperson in Modi’s home state of Gujarat asked party workers to convert “the feeling of nationalism… into a united vote.”

And before a captured Indian Air Force Wing commander could return home, Prime Minister Narendra Modi started using his name in election rallies. Throughout a crisis that had the potential to spark a war between the two nuclear-armed countries, Modi went about his political work. But the government has communicated poorly about the crisis and is speaking in many voices.

A deliberate fog of information has been created about what the strikes achieved. The purpose of this confusion seems to be to make the opposition ask questions – and then to call opposition parties unpatriotic for doubting the Indian armed forces.

Modi also said, in a deliberate pun on the word ‘pilot’, that the strikes were only a pilot project, and it would soon be extended. This appears to be an attempt to keep alive the possibility of reviving military tensions in the run-up to the election, to be held in several phases through April and May.

Economic slowdown

Many pundits think Modi has already wrested the narrative from the opposition and could comfortably ride back to power for a second term. However, there is also the possibility that the politicization could backfire.

On February 28, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the early repatriation of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the government released economic data. In October-December 2018, India’s economy grew at 6.6%, a five-quarter low. Considering that India’s new method of calculating the GDP has been controversial, even this low figure is likely an exaggeration.

For an emerging India, GDP growth in the 5-6% range amounts to a slowdown. The core sector in January was 1.8%, a 19-month low. Agriculture, which employs nearly half the country’s workforce, is growing at a mere 2.7%. The last time India’s farm sector saw such low growth rates was when the previous BJP government was in power – and it lost the election in 2004.

A host of economic data suggest that the GDP figures do not reflect the gravity of the country’s slowdown. Private investment has been so sluggish that in 2017-18, India’s unemployment rate reached a 45-year high of 6.1%. The government tried its best to hide this data.

Catch 22

But airstrikes on Pakistan will help galvanize the BJP’s core upper caste, Hindu nationalist voters. Since this section has a predominantly high share in India’s public discourse, it will help create the impression that Modi has shed his anti-incumbency. After a defeat in state polls in December last year,  Modi no longer appeared invincible. But the air strikes on Pakistan have made it look like he can’t lose.

Modi’s BJP won a clear majority in 2014 because it was able to convince a chunk of voters beyond its core base that Modi was the man who could deliver economic prosperity. As that promise is belied by numbers, voters still undecided about who to support will be key in deciding whether the BJP gets a clear majority or emerges as merely the largest single party.

Disappointment with the Modi government’s economic policies was undoubtedly a major factor behind the BJP’s shock defeat in three major state polls in December 2018 in the Hindi heartland. At the time of writing, it is five days since the GDP data was released. But Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is still busy attacking the opposition for politicizing the conflict with Pakistan because they accused the BJP of politicizing the conflict. Neither Jaitley or Modi have said a word about the worrying slowdown.

So the question is, should the BJP be punished for the economic slowdown, or rewarded for taking on Pakistan?

Narrative dissonance

What might help voters decide is the BJP’s enthusiastic exploitation of the national security crisis. There’s the old wisdom that the Indian voter is very smart. “This is the public,” goes the saying in Hindi, “it knows everything.”

The BJP is coming across as deliberately trying to paper over economic pain by shifting all political conversation to national security. There’s no doubt many will appreciate that Modi has ended India’s policy of strategic restraint and his decision to respond militarily to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism on Indian soil. But does that prevent an indebted farmer from committing suicide, or get his son a job?

Measures taken by the Modi government to alleviate farmers’ economic distress may not be enough as rural wages have stagnated – or declined after accounting for inflation.

The ruling BJP thinks it can make people forget their economic pain by highlighting its achievements in regard to national security. But this may create a dissonance. The BJP may win the narrative war, as it did under Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004. But his government went to the people under the “India Shining” slogan, when people were concerned about not benefiting from India’s economic rise. It was a surprise defeat, as the BJP appeared to win on TV and in opinion polls.

Similarly, the party under Modi runs the same risk. The more the BJP says national security, the more the voter might feel they are being deceived. It is possible that tension with Pakistan may not yet be over. But the perception that the government is escalating the dispute in the hope of winning more votes could backfire for the BJP.

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