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City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Nationalism Advantage?

By all accounts, the government should be under pressure post Pulwama. Under its direct watch, a horrific terrorist attack took place which took the lives of 40 CRPF personnel. Beyond this incident, this government’s track record in Kashmir should also invite scrutiny, given that since it has come to power, the situation in the state has deteriorated measurably. Fatalities have increased significantly and public disaffection is higher than any time in the recent past. Given that the BJP was in power in the state, having allied with a party it had labelled as being soft on separatism, it should have a lot to answer for. When the situation was reversed, the BJP and Mr Modi in particular had gone for the jugular.

Instead, it is the Opposition that seems to be on the back foot. While it has on the face of it, acted maturely by supporting the government in a time of national mourning, the truth is that it is not very clear as to how to attack the government on this front, however plausible a case it might have. Instead it is the government and its very vocal support base that is on the offensive, in every sense of the word. The issue of nationalism seems to belong exclusively to the BJP, no matter whether its actions are effective or not. The pressure instead is on Kashmiris across the country and other liberal voices that are routinely labelled anti-nationals.

The anger that we see is understandable, for terrorism of this kind is difficult to counter, and a sense of a lack of satisfying options is palpable. But to redirect the anger in a manner that has nothing to with the outcome that is sought is perplexing. Attacking Kashmiris can only make things worse, not playing Pakistan in the cricket World Cup is no way an act of revenge (can one imagine Pakistan being devastated at being gifted 2 extra points?), calling journalists vile names makes not the slightest difference to Pakistan, and not allowing India’s share of water to flow into Pakistan is hardly any kind of deterrent. Admittedly, it is early days, but what is striking is how little interest there is in finding real answers to the challenge that has been posed.

It would seem that any attempt to inject a note of rationality in the conversation is in danger of being called anti-national. As is asking any questions, no matter how legitimate and how aligned to the ultimate objective- of retaliating fittingly in this moment of crisis.  Irrational anger seems to be a signifier of patriotism; unless one exhibits a frenzied bloodlust, and thrashes about visibly even if ineffectually, one does not pass muster. Even Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar cannot escape this label, for having the temerity to point out something rather obvious.

That media comes to heel on such occasions is by now not surprising. War has been declared on Pakistan, and it is only a matter of time before our channels roll triumphantly into Islamabad, armed with megaphones and a panel of 18 very loud people in very small insets. Every action of the government, whether big or small, effective or not is heralded in stirring terms. We may not have a meaningful answer to terrorism in real life, but on television, we are always victorious.

As far as its supporters are concerned, what matters is not what the BJP leadership does, but how it feels about the subject. They are reassured that Mr Modi’s heart is in the right place, and that he has proved his credentials time and time again. Which is why, the party got away with aligning with PDP, and with Mr Modi’s sudden overture to Mr Nawaz Sharif as well as its general lack of success in Kashmir. None of the actions taken by the party seem to matter, what matters is the perceived intention. The BJP’s antipathy to Muslims seems to give it robust nationalist credentials when it comes to dealing with Pakistan, and nothing it does, no matter how questionable, seems to be able to change that.

This is a pattern that we have seen over the course of this government’s tenure. When it gets called out on any subject to do with hyper-nationalism, it gains momentum. Starting with the ‘intolerance’ debate and ‘award-waapsi’, whenever attempts are made to corner the government on this front, it manages instead to emerge stronger. Perhaps this is why, the Opposition has chosen not to pursue an aggressive strategy so far on this matter.

From the BJP’s perspective, this tragedy reinforces their core proposition that there is no one better than a strong leader like Mr Modi to lead the country when it is facing a crisis of this kind. The truth on the ground is that there aren’t too many concrete options that India has to retaliate, although retaliate it must, given the scale of the attack. For now, it is doing what it can, largely by way of symbolic gestures, and using its media clout to amplify small steps as major retaliatory measures. Perhaps, it is best, as Swaminathan Aiyer argued recently, that it continues to do so, without taking any precipitate action that could have deeper repercussions.

It is unclear as to whether a truly effective response will be possible to mount before the elections, for the benefit to accrue to the party. The attempt to keep the pot boiling by continuing to drive a wedge between communities does not give the kind of returns that an attack on Pakistan would.

Even if nothing really significant takes place, it is unlikely that Mr Modi will be under any real pressure. The BJP has won this internal war. It has made it mandatory for everyone to have to fall in line with their definition of nationalism, and anyone who demurs has to pay the price. Meanwhile, the party itself enjoys immunity from its actions, and nothing is likely to change that.

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