City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Post-Conflict Scenario?

So where have things come to rest in the India-Pakistan stand-off, if indeed they have come to rest? As others have argued, for the moment it looks like both sides can claim victory in front of their own constituencies, regardless of what really happened on the ground. It is far from clear as to what really did transpire, given the wide disparity in the multiple narratives that have emerged. There is little agreement even about the most basic facts. Each side has its own truth, and both sides are certain that they are right.

There are some in India who have argued that Pakistan, and in particular Imran Khan has emerged better from the perspective of optics than Mr Modi and India, on account of his communicativeness and the decision to return Wing Commander Abhinandan quickly, which helped de-escalate the situation.

This is however not how a majority of Indians are likely to view things. For them, the story is quite clear. Pakistan, through its proxy outfit JEM, launched a terrorist attack that killed 40 Indian para-military soldiers. The government acted quickly and decisively, by demolishing a terrorist camp deep in Pakistan which tried to strike back, but did so ineffectually. India did lose a pilot, who was captured by the other side. But international pressure and the fear of what Mr Modi’s government and the Indian armed forces could inflict on Pakistan made it return the brave pilot (who acted in an exemplary and inspiring fashion) immediately. Mr Khan wanted to talk, but Mr Modi was uncompromising, and in the end, prevailed.

And while there is no question that the unhinged media coverage has played a big role in constructing this narrative by bypassing inconvenient questions and amplifying the actions of the government, there is reason for the government to take some credit for the core action itself. What has been distasteful has been all that has surrounded it, whether it is the media coverage or the manner in which it has been politicised.

Given the situation that was presented to it, the Modi government had to act, largely because of the elections, but also because the dynamic between the two countries needed to be changed. Pakistan has made a virtue of its own instability, and blackmails India repeatedly by carrying out gruesome terrorist attacks on the country and then holding out the threat of its own unpredictability and irrationality. Regardless of what effect the strike produced, what the Indian action has successfully achieved is to significantly raise the cost of terrorist attacks. It is true that Pakistan, by virtue of having responded quickly to the Indian attack, has signalled that India will not be able to make forays into its territory without paying a price and risking a larger conflict. But even so, this new quasi-equilibrium is located at a higher price point, which is likely to act as a deterrent for future terrorist actions. India’s willingness to roll the dice has made the situation more expensive and dangerous for both sides and Pakistan will need to evaluate if backing future terrorist strikes is worth the price.

The lack of any scrutiny or nuance in the media coverage has helped convert what is a successful renegotiation of strategic space between the two countries into an outright and overwhelming victory for India and Mr Modi. How deep is its effect and how long will it last are questions that will determine its impact on the forthcoming elections.

On the face of it, the BJP has a real opportunity of solving its core problem- how to expand its voting base beyond its traditional constituency. Even in 2014, at the height of the Modi wave, it had managed only managed 31% vote share by itself, and by all accounts not only is that number likely to be lower this time, but the UP arithmetic is entirely different given the coming together of the SP and BSP. The loss of 3 key northern states only complicates matters further. Attempts to polarise voters seem to have reached a point of saturation and even the Ram Janmabhoomi issue seems to have all but been abandoned as lacking enough motivational juice to bring in a new set of voters. A perceived victory over Pakistan is a different matter. It not only galvanises a much larger section of voters but also helps bolster the BJP’s case that in a crisis of this kind, the country needs a strong and decisive leader.

Given this opportunity, it is a little surprising that Mr Modi has gone back to a more traditional template of negative campaigning. Complaining about Modi-hate, calling a broad swathe of critics anti-national and continuing to snipe at the Congress and the ‘family’ is only likely to speak to the party’s existing base. At this time, a larger, more leader-like approach that strove to be more inclusive might have yielded the party more dividends. This was an opportunity to rise above a strategy based on divisiveness, but the party has perhaps gone too far down this road, to switch lanes.

For now, the Opposition seems to have lost steam, but there is still some time to go, and news cycles can change quickly. What will matter most is if the Opposition is able to regroup, pick up the threads of its campaign and find a new narrative in today’s changed circumstances. Questioning BJP’s claims of an Indian victory is electorally risky, but nor can it cede victory to it on the nationalism front, so it has to find a way to change the conversation to another arena. From the BJP perspective, it will need to keep this issue front and centre in as inclusive a way as possible but the magnetic pull of its own base can sometimes lead it to overplay its hand. Overall, the BJP has reason to feel much more optimistic about the election, but how it chooses to utilise this opportunity will help determine the extent of its gains.

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