With the election dates announced I would reckon there’s one question that’s probably on everyone’s lips: have the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot airstrike that followed it changed the political landscape and altered electoral calculations or is that just a passing impression which will fade with time? My initial answer was to agree with the first half of the question. But the more I reflect the more I realise that’s not as obvious as it first seems.
There’s no doubt that as of today, a mood of nationalism and anti-Pakistan feeling has superseded earlier issues such as joblessness, rural distress, Rafale, the continuing impact of GST and demonetisation and, perhaps, even identity and religion. At its heart is India’s traditional yearning for a strong decisive leader capable of teaching Pakistan a lesson. Like Indira Gandhi in 1971, Narendra Modi in 2019 fits that description. So will a euphoric and grateful nation vote for him?
Possibly. After the surgical strikes of 2016 the Bharatiya Janata Party swept to victory in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in 2017. Could it happen again? Perhaps. Of the 40 CRPF jawans killed in Pulwama, 30 per cent came from this one state. Beyond that, the largest percentage of recruits to the three armed forces is also from UP. So here the impact of national fervour could be most pronounced. However, a contrarian view is also possible. In 1999, in Kargil, Atal Bihari Vajpayee only won the same number of seats as he did in 1998. In 2009, after 26/11, the Congress didn’t lose seats but gained over 60. And then there’s the famous example of Winston Churchill, who won the Second World War only to badly lose the election a few months later. This means there’s no clear correlation between nationalist sentiment and election results. At best it can be argued both ways.
Now, there are good reasons for believing the electoral impact of Balakot could be different to that of the surgical strikes. First, rural distress and farmer suicides have progressively worsened since 2017. Maharashtra may be the worst affected but, remember, 60 per cent of India is rural. When they vote, won’t the issues of immediate concern and suffering determine how they do so? It’s hard to believe the PM’s Kisan Scheme has adequately allayed this concern.
The other factor is joblessness. Admittedly, in 2017-18, unemployment was at its worst in 45 years at 6.1 per cent but since then the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy says it’s considerably increased to 7.3 per cent. Youth unemployment is even worse. The Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University suggests it’s an astonishing 16 per cent. The unemployment rate for rural males aged 15-29 jumped over three times to 17.4 per cent by 2017-18. The rate for rural females of the same age increased nearly three times to 13.6 per cent by 2017-18. The young may be fans of Modi and euphoric after Balakot but, surely, the pain of not having a job will trump any rejoicing over the strike?
A lot, of course, depends on how the opposition plays it. Rather than question the success of Balakot or accuse the government of intelligence failure in Pulwama or continuing to whip the over-flogged Rafale horse, the opposition needs to stir the cauldron of unemployment, rural distress, Dalit and minority mistreatment and the general intolerance of the Modi government. If it can do this successfully, Balakot may not dominate on voting day. But can it? So far I’m not convinced the answer is yes.