Revisiting Pulwama

Jingoism as politics

Published : February 22, 2021 06:00 IST

A banner installed near the BJP headquarters in Lucknow on March 5, 2019, by a BJP leader, claiming to take revenge for the Pulwama killings. Photo: The Hindu archives

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Meerut, on March 28, 2019. Here he referred to the First War of Independence that began from Meerut in 1857, and drew a parallel between the soldiers killed during the Pulwama attack and martyrs of the War of Independence. Photo: AP

Bear Grylls , host of ‘Man vs Wild’ wildlife show, takes a selfie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. Photo: ANI

At the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maandhan Pension Scheme in Ahmedabad on March 5, 2019. During the visit, he said: “It is our principle to hit the enemy inside its territory…. I do not like to wait for long.” Photo: The Hindu archives

At the Indore rally on May 12, 2019, he played to the gallery with repeated references to Modi/Bharat “ghar mein ghus kar marta hai”. Photo: PTI

The ‘nationalist sentiment’ Modi evoked at every election rally post-Pulwama attack and his frequent exhortations around the Balakot air strikes and terrorism helped turn around the BJP’s waning fortunes in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

When tragedy struck Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir around 3.10 p.m. on February 14, 2019, as a Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on 70 Army vehicles claimed the lives of 40 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Prime Minister Narendra Modi was said to have been on an “epic adventure of a lifetime” in the Dhikala zone of the Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, shooting for the ‘Man vs Wild’ documentary with Bear Grylls for Discovery channel. A couple of hours later, at 5.10 p.m., he addressed a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rally in Rudrapur, Udham Singh Nagar district, via mobile phone as he could not reach the venue because of inclement weather. Modi did not forget to remind the listeners of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s role in the creation of Uttarakhand. He talked of the various projects initiated for the benefit of farmers and initiatives to enhance rail and road connectivity in the State. What he failed to mention was the dastardly attack that took place in Pulwama, an incident that was to heavily influence the campaign in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election held a two months later.

Modi’s decision to shoot for the documentary and later address a party rally drew a lot criticism from the opposition parties with both Rahul Gandhi, who was then Congress president, and Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) landing their best punches. The Prime Minister, however, as it turned out, was not shy of mentioning Pulwama. He was merely waiting for the right opportunity. That opportunity came in April-May, and Modi spoke about Pulwama at every election rally and meeting. If until the Pulwama tragedy, Modi had confined himself to talking about development, inclusive development, and all-round development, and pollsters whispered about a possible hung Parliament, the situation changed when he went into campaign mode. After February 14, he visited Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. In the crucial Hindi belt State, he addressed rallies in Varanasi, Prayagraj, Kanpur and Amethi.
Also read: Intelligence inputs warning of Pulwama attack were ignored

Speaking in Amethi on March 3, 2019, he aroused nationalist sentiments, with the ‘Bharat Mata ki’ slogan. At each venue, he did not lose the opportunity to refer to nationalism in the wake of Pulwama. In fact, on February 27, his party colleagues had started congratulating him for winning the Lok Sabha election even before a single vote was cast. Hot on the heels of the air strike in Balakot in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, B.S. Yediyurappa, the BJP leader of Karnataka, even predicted that the air strike had created a mood in favour of Prime Minister Modi and would help the BJP win 22 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka. Soon visuals of the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and his eventual release by the Pakistan military hit the media and suddenly, Pakistan, Pulwama, Balakot and terrorism became the central issues of the Lok Sabha election.

Chowkidar of the nation

A few days later, in the first week of March, Modi during a visit to Ahmedabad, said: “Yeh humhara siddhant hai ki hum ghar mein ghus kar maarenge…. Main lamba intezar nahin kar sakta.” (It is our principle to hit the enemy inside its territory…. I do not like to wait for long.) His words spread like wildfire on the streets of north India and on social media.

He soon turned Rahul Gandhi’s charge, “Chowkidar chor hai” (the watchman is thief), made while raising allegations about irregularities in the Rafale deal, into a security issue by framing himself as the watchman of the nation. Modi launched his twitter campaign with the hashtag #MainBhiChowkidar; his party colleagues quickly joined in, each one using the prefix of ‘Chowkidar’ before his/her name on social media. The issue was no longer about corruption in the purchase of the France-made jet fighters but about the security of the nation. And ‘chowkidar’ was its able defender.

After the Pulwama attack and the air strikes, Modi presented himself as the strongman who avenged the Pulwama killings by bombing the terrorists inside Pakistan. No evidence was presented or sought as jingoism reigned supreme. In five pre-election speeches he made in Moradabad, Panaji, Bhagalpur, Buniadpur and Kendrapara, Modi used the word ‘chowkidar’ a whopping 106 times. The reference to development was a mere 31 times in comparison, and his home State Gujarat was mentioned only once! Pakistan, in comparison, found mention 15 times and terrorism 24 times. Poverty was mentioned only thrice and unemployment did not find any mention at all, a surprising omission given that the government had talked frequently about welfare schemes on social media and during political campaigns before the February 14 attack.
Also read: Pulwama and after

Pulwama was a litmus test of his strongman image. Modi was not about to abstain from chest thumping, making innumerable direct or indirect references to the attack. Starting his campaign on March 28, 2019, from Meerut, he referred to the First War of Independence that began from Meerut in 1857, and drew a parallel between the soldiers killed during the Pulwama attack and martyrs of the War of Independence. He paid homage to Pulwama martyr Ajay Kumar in Meerut, and claimed: “Whether it is the land, the sky or the surgical strikes, your chowkidar has done it all. The Mahagathbandhan [grand coalition of opposition parties] used to see the religion or caste of terrorists ... Tell me, if this used to take place or not?”

Shortly thereafter, speaking at Ausa in Latur on April 9, 2019, Modi made an impassioned plea for vote to the Pulwama martyrs. Addressing first-time voters, he said: “When you earn your first salary, usually you don’t keep it for yourself. You want to dedicate it to your mother or sister. Similarly, can you dedicate your vote for the Balakot strike, for the Pulwama attack victims…?” The opposition smelled a plot and approached the Election Commission with a grievance. The Commission ruled in Modi’s favour. It stated: “The matter has been examined in detail in accordance with the extant advisories, provisions of the Model Code of Conduct and after examination of complete transcript of speech of 11 pages as per the certified copy sent by the Returning Officer, Osamanabad parliamentary constituency. Commission is of the considered view that in this matter no such violation of the extant advisories/provisions is attracted.”

Three days earlier, on April 6, he had addressed a huge gathering in Nanded, Maharashtra, where he talked of surgical strikes, air strikes, Kashmir and terrorism. This speech was buttressed with statements ridiculing the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party.

Modi had just begun. Pulwama was ripe for the picking. He was to go on to address 144 rallies and roadshows in the searing heat of 2019. In Uttar Pradesh alone, he addressed 36 rallies and roadshows, averaging one rally for a little over two seats. He was scarcely less prolific in West Bengal where he held 17 rallies for the State’s 42 seats. Importantly, in Uttar Pradesh, Modi was trying to hold on to the BJP’s 73 seats, whereas in Bengal, the party had just two seats and was trying to use Pulwama to make electoral gains. The story was repeated in Odisha where the party held only one of the 21 seats but sought to make inroads with Modi’s eight rallies.

Playing to the gallery

In his own constituency of Varanasi, Modi talked of Pulwama and the soldiers who died in the attack. On April 26, in his address at Dashashwamedh, the holiest of the ghats in the city, he said, “Whether it is the Pulwama attack, Uri attack or any other issue, I have only one mantra with which I have lived—the country comes first, India first.” In an apparent reference to the air strikes, he said, the world now backed India in its fight against terror.
Also read: The attacker behind Pulwama

On May 12, in an address in Indore, he played to the gallery with repeated references to Modi/Bharat “ghar mein ghus kar marta hai”. Even by his own standards, Modi catered to the lowest denominator in this address by asking his audience to say, whether he should have struck the enemy in its home, or sat scared at home. “Who can fight terrorism? Do not say Modi to please me or the media. Say it with your heart,” he urged the enthusiastic crowd.

The month of May was a particularly rousing one for Modi as the election reached the critical phase. In Sikar, Rajasthan, he hit out at the Congress with frequent reminders of the air strikes following Pulwama and countered its claim of having carried out six surgical strikes in 2013 by equating them with video games. “If you want to carry out strikes only in a video game then you can put the number at six, three or even 25,” he said. In Bikaner around the same time, he reminded voters: “Decisions to carry out air strikes, surgical strikes are made only under strong governments.” It was similar to what he had said in Bhagalpur, Bihar, on April 11, where he talked of striking hideouts of terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir and accused the opposition of taking money from Pakistan. “Those who take money from Pakistan, can they be trusted? They are scared. They are frightening the nation that if Modi came back to power, there would be no elections in future, constitutional institutions would be over, reservation would cease and tukde tukde gangs would splinter.”

What surveys said

The Observer Research Foundation (ORF), an independent think tank, had seen this coming. The website had posted on March 5, 2019: “The BJP-led NDA government’s five-year record of accomplishment has not been very commendable…. Killing of over 40 security forces personnel at Pulwama has come Modi’s way as a God’s gift since the BJP’s political fortunes were nosediving. Given his talent to turn a tragedy into a political opportunity, Modi did not even pause a minute to go into grief as a normal citizen would have done. Instead, he began to exploit popular sentiments for electoral objectives.”

The heightened focus on issues of national security and terrorism in the wake of Pulwama was based on sound reason. Surveys in early 2019 were predicting a close battle in the election, the economy was in the doldrums, there was a looming agrarian crisis, and Modi’s hold over voters was waning. A year earlier, most surveys had predicted a close fight with economic issues dominating voter’s preference. A Mood of the Nation survey carried out by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies across 19 States in April-May found that 47 per cent of the respondents felt that “Modi does not merit another opportunity to govern India after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections”. In 2018, the BJP and its allies had won only two of the 21 Assembly and Lok Sabha seats for which byelections were held. The Congress was resurgent after its success in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Counted among the losses for the BJP were Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh, the State that had sent 73 BJP-National Democratic Party representatives to the Lok Sabha in the 2014 election. Less than two months before Pulwama, a survey by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a New Delhi-based non-profit body, found, that most of the voters gave top priority to employment followed by primary health care and drinking water. Only 3.6 per cent of the 27,3000, people surveyed gave importance to issues of terrorism.
Also read: Terror next door

Voter priorities changed post-Pulwama as Modi made national security a major poll plank. The New York Times noted: “In India’s election season, a bombing interrupts Modi’s slump…. Only one month ago, Narendra Modi, India’s once unstoppable Prime Minister, seemed surprisingly vulnerable going into his re-election campaign. Economic growth had been slowing, thousands of farmers were marching in the capital, and unemployment had hit its worst levels in 45 years…. But one bombing in Kashmir… appears to have interrupted Mr Modi’s slump.”

Between January 3 and February 14, 2019, Modi delivered 23 public speeches across Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Assam and Maharashtra. Everywhere he talked of the government’s welfare measures and Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, among others. In the next 24 speeches, delivered after the Pulwama attack, welfare politics was forgotten. Instead, ‘terrorism’ was used again and again, up to 70 times in 24 speeches with obvious focus on Pakistan. “While ‘terrorism’ featured in his addresses 70 times, ‘Pakistan’ followed with 47, ‘security forces’ with 35, and ‘Indian Air Force’ and ‘Balakot’ with five mentions each,” the online newspaper The Print analysed in April 2019.

Yes, Pulwama changed it all. Processions were taken out with coffins of the CRPF martyrs across the country, the BJP leaders accompanied many of these processions. A BJP spokesman said on April 23, 2019, that it created a nationalist wave across the country. A little later, a Jammu voter was quoted as saying: “I want a Prime Minister who does not bow before world powers and begs them for money. A weakling cannot be a Prime Minister.”

The nationalist wave, and Modi’s frequent exhortations around Pulwama had the desired effect. The BJP came back to power with an increased tally of seats. However, in his first speech at the party’s headquarters after winning the election, Modi failed to mention Pulwama.
Also read: Pulwama attack happened despite 2 successive intelligence inputs

As in February 2019, Modi had not forgotten Pulwama; he merely put it on the back burner. He renewed the reference in February 2021, on the second anniversary of the Pulwama attack, when, speaking at an event in Chennai, he said: “No Indian can forget the Pulwama attack.” Throughout the 2019 election campaign, Modi made sure that nobody forgot Pulwama. More importantly, everybody gave him credit for the air strikes without asking questions about the intelligence lapse in preventing the Pulwama attack. A political masterstroke, if ever there was one.

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