COVER STORY

Terror before elections: a pattern

Print edition : August 13, 2021

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh with the coffins of the Pulwama victims, in Srinagar, on February 15, 2019. With him is Satya Pal Malik, then the Governor of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: The Hindu

Prime Minister Narendra Modi observing a two-minute silence in homage to the Pulwama victims. Photo: SANDEEP SAXENA

In recent years, there seems to be a pattern of elections being preceded by terror attacks, providing a perfect pretext to the government to go on an overdrive of ultranationalism.

Exploiting national security issues and acts of terrorism to further political agendas and spur the electorate’s appetite for hypernationalism has long been the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) staple of politics. The model, however, was perfected and turned more brazen with the emergence of Narendra Modi in Delhi’s power corridors in 2014.

Its most successful enactment was witnessed in the days leading to the general election of 2019 against the backdrop of the terror attack in Pulwama on February 14 that year in which 40 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) died. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Cabinet colleagues, many of whom made public appearances with the coffins of the martyred men wrapped in the Tricolour, left no stones unturned to chalk out an election campaign driven by a single agenda of national security and jingoism. Patriotic avowals and raucous calls for revenge were made in a series of election rallies, which were streamed promptly on television. All the issues that Modi had failed to address - unemployment, inflation and the agrarian crisis – were drowned in the cacophony.

Modi used this opportunity to cement a perception that previous governments had not shown the courage to act against terror. His government’s decisiveness in acting against terror was supposedly exemplified by the Balakot air raids in Pakistan, which Modi and his PR team, helped by a section of the media, projected successfully as a tremendous military feat. Never mind reports pointing out that the strikes were really inconsequential. Days before the Election Commission was to schedule the Lok Sabha election, Modi claimed at a public gathering in Hindon, Ghaziabad, that there were reports that the Indian Air Force (IAF) had asked Manmohan Singh’s government to give it a free hand to avenge the 2008 Mumbai terror attack but was restrained.

Also read: Jingoism as politics

Acts of terror followed by nationalistic drum-beating and Army operations, coinciding with or coming ahead of State or national elections have been a consistent feature of the Modi government. It has prompted several politicians from the opposition ranks to question their timing. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray said in March 2019 that another “Pulwama-like attack” could be in the offing ahead of that year’s seven-phase election in April and May. “In a bid to win upcoming elections, there will be another Pulwama-like attack carried out within the next one to two months, and once again all these lectures about patriotism will begin,” he said. According to him, the purpose of such a strike would be to divert people’s attention from pressing issues and prevent them from making any holistic assessment of the Modi regime.

Raj Thackeray even attempted to draw a parallel between the Pathankot terror attack on January 2, 2016 and the Assembly elections in four States slated in a few months’ time. A heavily armed group attacked the Pathankot Air Force Station. The gun battle and the subsequent combing operation lasted about 17 hours, leaving five terrorists and three security personnel dead. Three other soldiers later succumbed to their injuries.

Wide-ranging perceptions of something suspicious in all this have persisted over the years in whisper-campaign mode. This reporter’s year-long investigation in Kashmir regarding the Pulwama terror attack threw up many discomforting revelations that have gone to compound the debate surrounding terror attacks and their timing ahead of elections.

Pulwama: unanswered questions

Frontline’s investigation has revealed that there were at least 11 intelligence inputs between January 2, 2019, and February 13, 2019, pointing to a macabre “Qisas” (retribution) mission in the making. The government turned a deaf ear to the warnings. The attack took place on February 14. ( “Revisiting Pulwama”, Frontline, March 12, 2021).

The agencies, and therefore invariably the government, knew that a terror strike could be launched on the route of the security forces. The agencies knew that Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) terror commander Mudasir Ahmed Khan, who was later identified as the Pulwama mastermind, was working along with four foreign mercenaries on a “major fidayeen attack in coming days”. They also had information that Mudasir Khan was moving around in Midoora and Lam Tral villages in the last week of January 2019.

Mudasir Khan was a fugitive wanted in connection with a terror attack at a CRPF camp in Lethpora in 2017 in which five security personnel were killed. It is extremely strange that the security forces were not alert enough—or so it appears—to track down and apprehend or eliminate him in spite of intelligence reports of incontrovertible quality

The Frontline story essentially proved that Government of India lied in Parliament when asked if there was any prior intelligence available ahead of the attack. On June 19, 2019, while responding to a question in the Rajya Sabha on whether there had been any failure of intelligence, Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy said “No Sir” in a written response. He stated: “All agencies are working in a coordinated manner and the intelligence inputs are shared among various agencies on real time basis.” The government’s silence, even as senior opposition leaders and the foreign press asked pointed questions in the light of the Frontline report, has only allowed speculation to mount.

A month ahead of the crucial Maharashtra and Haryana elections in November 2019, shelling by the Pakistani Army killed two Indian soldiers and a civilian. The Indian Army then launched heavy artillery attacks targeting at least four terror camps and several Pakistani military positions along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, killing five Pakistani soldiers.

Also read: Beyond the ceasefire in Jammu & Kashmir

The Congress alleged at the time that the BJP would now politicise the Army action. It said that a “surgical strike” always happens just before elections under the Modi regime. “Under Modi ji’s government, whenever there’s an election in a big State, a pattern of surgical strike is formed. Now, politics will be done on surgical strike to divert attention from real issues,” said Akhilesh Singh of the Congress.

Around the same time, that is, October 2019, Modi accused the Congress of being soft on terror and claimed that he had improved the security situation vastly. He said that during Congress-led regimes, terror attacks and bomb blasts would take place in Mumbai “any time” and its coastline had become “entry point” for terrorists.

Pathankot, Pulwama and the October 2019 Army operation are not the only times that saw ‘a sudden escalation’ of India-Pakistan conflict ahead of an election. In December 2014, around the time of the Assembly election in Jammu and Kashmir, heavily armed militants penetrated an Indian Army camp. As many as 11 security personnel were killed and five militants were eliminated. Security officials suspected that the attack had been meant to disrupt voting in the election. Modi, who had made overtures to Pakistan that year, inviting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, took a hard-line approach and suspended the planned talks between the Foreign Ministers of the two countries.

Celebrating surgical strikes

The University Grants Commission in September 2018 wrote a letter to all universities directing them to celebrate September 29 as “Surgical Strikes Day”. This, despite the fact that some experts maintain that such raids across the Line of Control have been conducted since the mid 1990s, and the one in 2016 was no different save its grandiose marketing on prime-time television. At any rate, it does not match the exemplary valour shown by the Indian forces in the past, be it the capture of Zoji La pass in late 1948 or that of the Haji Pir Pass, both of which were far more hazardous operations. However, the UGC deemed it fit to selectively celebrate the surgical strike of 2016 that Modi has branded as one of his military successes.

Also read: The strikes & the echo

How far such politicisation of national security issues would go and how long it would benefit the BJP politically is not certain. Congress leader Udit Raj stirred up a hornet’s nest when he said in February 2020 that “there can be another Pulwama-like attack ahead of the 2024 general elections”.

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