Face-saver for Modi

Face-saver for Modi
With the successful conduct of surgical strikes inside the Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir to demolish launch pads for terrorists, the first round has gone to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The prime minister has killed many birds with one stone. For a start, he has reestablished his image of a “strong leader” which was being dented in the last few months. Terror strikes apart, the people had begun to express disenchantment, that while the prime minister “talked good”, the follow up action they had expected was missing.

Modi has now demonstrated that he is capable of taking tough decisions, even as his own rhetoric remained responsible, coming across as a restrained leader at Kozhikode when he urged Pakistan to wage a war, along with India, against poverty and unemployment, appealing directly to the people of Pakistan, even as he maintained that India would punish the perpetrators of Uri. It is this which has resonated with not just the BJP’s core but also with a wider constituency which was becoming increasingly angry at India being treated like a sitting duck, and the leadership not being able to stop it.

The fact is that the mood in the country had been hardening with the terror groups from across the border continuing their attacks on Indian targets. This, despite the prime minister having personally tried to reach out to Pakistan premier Nawaz Sharif through his invite to attend the swearing-in ceremony as well as his unscheduled visit to Lahore to greet him on his birthday. The national sentiment  for a “strong leader” which had brought Narendra Modi to power in 2014 has far from waned. People want decisive leaders everywhere. With the strikes, Modi has restored his strongman image which had started to fray.  The strikes have also injected fresh adrenaline in the BJP cadre, which was facing fatigue two-and-a-half years into the government’s term. Barring the shot in the arm the party got with its victory in Assam earlier this year, after the Delhi and Bihar defeats last year, the disenchantment had begun to set in, for a variety of reasons. These included rising prices, lack of jobs and non-fulfilment of the huge expectations that people had from the Modi regime.

Many believe that the timing of the surgical strikes was dictated more by domestic imperatives than just by security or international reasons. The new element in the Modi Doctrine towards Pakistan is the fact that strikes have been made public. It is not as if the Indian military had not gone across the LoC for short swift strikes in the past and this has been pointed out by many a military expert. But this is the first time they announced what they had done, with the DGMO himself giving the details. And they let it be known that they had filmed the whole operation.

Clearly, the surgical strikes will have a bearing on the critical elections in Uttar Pradesh slated for early 2017, though ma­ny believe that the BJP brass may now try and advance them by a month – if Mula­ya­m Singh Yadav cooperates – to take advantage of the current euphoric respo­nse in the country with every party backing what the government has done. The pri­me minister and BJP chief Amit Shah had openly said that “nationalism” was the party’s identity and would be its main age­nda.

Poll calculations

Modi’s “befitting” reply will feed into the nationalistic fervour everywhere, but above all, in the Ganga heartland, this could mean advantage BJP. The latest events could put the other issues which have dominated the debate in UP, of Dalits’ unhappiness with the BJP, or the possibility of the Dalit-Muslim combination rallying behind the BSP, into the shade. As it is, the ruling Samajwadi Party has been weakened given the intense power struggle within the party. The BJP leadership is clear that it is the victory in UP which can give it the impetus it needs to retain Delhi in 2019. The prime minister was under pressure “to act”, beyond isolating Pakistan globally and diplomatically. India has managed to get the US and Russia to support its stand on Uri and the support of its position by five Saarc members has led to the cancellation of the summit in Islamabad next month. While the first round has gone to Narendra Modi, the BJP’s larger battle is far from over.

How the whole story pans out in the long run will also depend on how Pakistan retaliates and the counter-response India is compelled to give, given the compulsions which have made Modi go for the surgical strikes in the first place. Clearly, India does not hold all the cards here, though it may hope to calibrate and contain the escalation to manageable levels. Much will also depend on Modi’s statesmanship and the government’s diplomatic skills to de-escalate the situation now, having made the “enough is enough” point.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based senior journalist)

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