Nothing unites a country like war. While India calls its February 26 action by its air force deep into Pakistan as a "pre-emptive" strike on terror camps located there, it has whipped up war hysteria among the people. Putting aside their political differences and preferences, which were getting sharper as the national elections came closer, people at large, irrespective of their political affiliations, have come together to cheer the decisive action by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deal with what India widely sees as Pakistan-sponsored terror directed against India and ensure its national security. So high is nationalist passion that any divergent view is seen as unpatriotic and 'anti-national.'
Sensing popular sentiment, opposition parties, with the Congress in the lead, have decided to stand united with the Modi government in its response to the government action against Pakistan. An all-party meeting held hours after the strike saw unity over the “anti-terrorist operation” and congratulated the IAF for carrying out a “meticulous” operation. Their mature decision to rise above politics and the display of unity however was as calibrated as keeping the focus on the IAF pilots without giving any undue credit to the government. Speaking at a public rally right after the operation, Congress president Rahul Gandhi was careful to congratulate only the IAF for their "meticulous" operation.
It is evident that the opposition does not want the BJP and Modi to milk the popular mood that has come about after the IAF operation. There is little doubt that the air strikes have again given the BJP and Modi a political advantage it desperately needed at a time when questions were being raised about Modi slipping on his unfulfilled election promises on providing employment and alleviating farmer distress.
While opposition parties, particularly the Left parties, have asked the government to ensure that jingoistic passions are not aroused, BJP chief Amit Shah and Modi himself have made public statements to perpetuate the storyline based on the IAF strike, that Modi is the need of the hour and only he could have taken such a bold decision not dared by previous governments. In his first public remarks after the air strikes, Modi declared that the country was in "safe hands" and dramatically vowed by the soil of India that he would never allow the country to bow its head. Shah also made the governments initiative against terror a talking point and urged people to return Modi with a majority if they want to see India safe.
The BJP will work overtime to derive political mileage from the air strikes deep into Pakistan to raze to the ground JeM training camps. The BJP and the Modi government did the same with the 2016 "surgical strikes" across the LoC. The national security narrative linked to the present war-like situation is bound to push out narratives of unemployment, farmer’s distress, demonetisation, Goods and Services Tax and the Congress attempt to throw the corrupt tag back at Modi over the controversy-tainted Rafale jet-fighter deal with France. In fact, Gandhi will find it hard to flag the Rafale corruption issue now with the patriotic fervour and triumphalism running high over the Indian Air Force, its pilots and their mean flying machines.
These issues with the opposition parties and the Congress especially have been building on to attack Modi during elections will be overtaken by Modi’s now bolstered image with the people as a daring, decisive leader with zero tolerance for terrorism and the best protector of India’s security interests.
The Congress and other opposition parties endeavoring to form an alliance to oust Modi will have to now redraw their poll strategy. They have already asked Modi to convene an all-party meeting to take the opposition into confidence, but Modi is unlikely to be willing to share credit at this time with the opposition, just when the peoples’ political sentiments at large are in the ruling party's favour.
The biggest challenge for the anti-Modi political parties is to find alternative issues which will hold in the face of the mood that has set in post the punitive air operations into Pakistani territory which have set war clouds looming over the subcontinent. What is the sort of opposition campaign that will catch the ear of the voter in the din of nationalist fervour? How will their campaign counter Modi’s image as the protector of national interest and pride? He can no longer be criticized for not living up to his promise to “teach Pakistan a lesson” in the face of recurrent terror attacks. There will be few takers for this at this moment. The only hope for the opposition is the situation returning to normal or Modi making a strategic slip.
Post the February 26-27 strikes and counter-strikes the political situation has dramatically changed. There is even talk of whether the national elections would be postponed, though this has been refuted by the Election Commission of India. With a fluid and precarious border situation, increased cross-border firing and jingoistic sentiments running high, much will depend on how things pan out in the coming weeks.
(The writer is a political analyst)