Hot News

Not Much Bang For The Buck

Not Much Bang For The Buck

Exercising its veto this month in the United Nations Security Council to block Hafiz Saeed being tagged an international terrorist, the Peoples Republic of China may well have stopped the fifth war between India and Pakistan.

Defence and strategic experts have worried over the calibrated confrontation between the two countries getting out of hand, with general elections in India tempting prime minister Narendra Modi to go the whole hog after his perhaps two surgical strikes, as he calls them and his home minister Raj Nath Singh counts them, and the air strike into an alleged training camp run by Masood Azhar in Balakot close to Islamabad, the capital.  

The general election poses a challenge to Modi. He promised the twin attractions of a Hindu Rashtra for his people smarting under the Nehruvian secularism, and ache din, good times through employment for the aspiring youth, relief to farmers who had been crushed under backbreaking and spirit-sapping debt ever since liberalization first began twenty-five years ago under Narasimha Rao, and rapid development that would allow industrial giants to realize their full potential.

His five years may well be remembered just for four things – demonetization that traumatised the poorest as much as it did the middle classes, the cow laws that killed scores at the hands of Hindutva lynch bombs and jeopardized agrarian economy already reeling under farmers suicides, a chilling targeted hate campaign that has polarized the country and incited violence, and finally, entirely alienating Dalits and Tribals by trying to withdraw laws that protected their lives and their homes.

The car bombing by a terrorist of a Central Reserve Police convoy in Kashmir killing 41 troopers scandalized and outraged the country. They had been led to believe that the macho and muscular Modi political doctrine backed by the military were in absolute control in Kashmir. The pellet guns, the infamous tying of a civilian to a jeep by a young major, and the elimination of major commanders of sundry terror groups was supposed to have taught handlers in Pakistan a lesson.

Modi had to order a daring airstrike into Pakistan, the next logical step after commando action two years ago under the dramatic title of Surgical strike.

The air strike proved India felt no longer bound by its war doctrine of not crossing the international border or the lines of control and “actual control”, as they are called in various sectors of the long stretch from Gujarat through Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, the hot spot for the last three quarters of a century.

It called Pakistan’s bluff of a nuclear escalation, and it proved that Indian defence forces would obey political commands from the political hierarchy when called upon to do so. Long ago in 1971, in the face of far graver escalation of tension across the border, the then Army chief Sam Manekshaw had refused to oblige prime Minister Indira Gandhi with an immediate strike into Pakistan, seeking and getting time of almost six months before he struck, and divided Pakistan into two, birthing an independent Bengali speaking Bangladesh.

In the event, while the Indian army just remained alert, the air force swept into Pakistan with a motley air armada of modern and ancient strike aircraft. Unfortunately, the frontline of Soviet-era MiGs, however updated their systems were made, perhaps failed to fully deliver what was expected of them in wiping off a sprawling madrasa.

What was expected to be a glorious air victory, ended in tragedy if not ignominy. The brave MiG pilot, Abhinandan Vardhaman, shot down a US made F-16 fighter jet, but was himself struck down. He parachuted safely, but into captivity.

The military and political drama then became getting him back from Pakistan to salvage face. Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan scored international brownie points by almost immediately announcing he was releasing the Indian pilot before international pressure became too apparent. His political domestic constituency remained safe. Memories of the 1971 defeat were not revived.

Modi’s political constituency could not rejoice, despite a well-orchestrated campaign on social media, and what is now correctly called Modi’s Godi, or lapdog, electronic media. The much-wonted diplomatic goodwill generated by Modi in his scores of visits to north America, Europe and even China have failed to isolate Pakistan. China has consistently voted for Pakistan. The US muttered under its breath, but has never used its drones to take out people that India identifies as terrorists no less dangerous than Osama bin Laden. Saudi Arabia, who India was counting on for much, not only gave a massive cash dole to Pakistan, but also expressed ongoing economic and political collaboration.

And the Organisation of Islamic States, which invited India, home to the world’s second largest Muslim community, as a guest of honour at its annual meeting, also passed a resolution that indicts India on several counts. In different times, Modi would have found it difficult to hide his face from the people.

But in the style he has made so entirely his own, as apparent as the Rajputana turbans he wears to appear taller than anyone near him at public functions, Modi has chosen to brazen it out.

He has promised an aggressive campaign. And he has targeted Rahul Gandhi as his main opponent. In almost ignoring regional satraps ranging from Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and MK Stalin in Tamil Nadu – though remains an opponent in the individual state – Modi has a grand design in mind. He almost succeeds in making it not a Lok Sabha election of 543 seats, but a US-styled presidential election for just one seat, that of the head of government by whatever name one calls him.

In doing so, he keeps the election in the states comparatively open.  Win or lose, the regional leaders remain possible and even probable post-election allies when the presidential contest has perforce to revert to a counting of seats in parliamentary system.

He has also wooed back estranged lovers such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Assam Gana Parishad, no less a chauvinist and communal force, in Assam.

But above all, he sees to believe together with his major domo and party president Amit Shah, that in Rahul Gandhi he has an easy target.

In the Sangh’s time-scale sequence, Rahul is of the line of Jawaharlal Nehru who stole the premiership from Gujarat icon Vallabhbhai Patel. He is the grandson of Indira Gandhi who brought in tanks to demolish the Akal Takht and injure the Golden Temple. He is the son of Rajiv Gandhi whose remarks goaded hordes to kill over 5,000 Sikh men and youth in the most horrendous manner, who brought in corruption in Defence deals through deals in the Bofors guns. He is also the son of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian who presided over UPA 1 and 2, the coal scam, the 2-G broadband scam and the Robert Vadra land scam.

Seems an easy target. The auburn hair and the “pappu” image do no help despite victories in the populous states of Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan.  

It also does not help that the Congress under Rahul Gandhi seems to be arrogant and seemingly is keen to alienate even well-meaning political parties such as the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav duo in Uttar Pradesh and Trinamool Congress in Bengal.

Modi and Shah seem convinced of victory when they see Rahul eager to wound but hesitant to strike in the critical area of social harmony and the battle against communalism and casteism.

To the untrained eye, Rahul is flirting with a second-grade Hindutva. His sacred thread in various states, the temple visits, the support to cow pounds, or gaushalas at state expense in Madhya Pradesh, and above all, his failure to use the most strong language to condemn the targeting of Muslims and Dalits ought to be music to Modi’s ears. A certain uncontrolled language when questioning Modi’s claims of military successes also puts Rahul Gandhi in an embarrassing position with the army and the vast number of retired soldiers.

But Modi misses a crucial point. Indira Gandhi has sown, repeatedly, that it was more important to woo the people rather than to attack the opponents. She rose from the ashes, so to say, in 1979.

Modi’s opponent is not Rahul Gandhi. The Mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, which he so derides and mocks in his public utterances, is not so much a pre-election compromise as a post-election promise. Parties in friendly contests may well get more candidates elected than if they were in rigid compromises with seats divided not on the basis of any principles , but on the pulls and pressures of personalities.

Modi’s main challenge comes from his great success of 2014. The campaign was built on hate, mostly, with the RSS in full cry, on attacking the Congress corruption, and on premises of good days, of good economic days. He has failed in his attempts to change the discourse. Hyper nationalism, military adventurism and muscular governance in which Muslims and Dalits are shown their places will not work.

Even a small erosion of ten or fifteen seats in Uttar Pradesh can brand down the BJP’s castle of dreams. The party peaked in 2014 in its strongholds, and with its allies in areas such as Bihar and Maharashtra. There is only one direction in which it can go – and that direction is downwards.

This writer has travelled one week every month the last twenty months across the length and breadth of the country.

The polarization is frightening, of course. But also apparent is the great damage done to the agrarian economy. Stray cattle, hungry bulls and dying cows have made revered animal into curse for the farmers in every state. The situation may reach crisis point in the next two years.

Demonetisation will come back to haunt Narendra Modi even if Rafale, the most corrupt defence deal ever in India, does not do so in full measure. Just how deep it has wended will be apparent only by inference. The results in May 2019 will be an important yardstick.

(Published on 18th March 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 12)