Post-Balakot, it’s advantage BJP in North India

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It is still early to call India’s air strikes across the western border and Pakistan’s retaliation a pivotal moment in the prelude to the Lok Sabha elections. Certainly, the occurrences make it a swim-or-sink time in politics: swim with the jingoist tide, as it were, or sink if the country becomes awash with the nationalist rhetoric and the BJP gains a decisive upper hand over its rivals.

Political observers have drawn a line between the North and West and the South of India when commenting on the likely region-wise response to India-Pakistan relations. The East is somewhat of a conundrum although West Bengal has inherited as storied a history of Partition and its bloody aftermath as parts of the North. But long years of Communist rule subsumed the religious breach into more fundamental concerns such as the equitable redistribution of economic resources. In Assam and other North East states, the assertion of ethnic identities against a pan-nationalist personality and a revanchist sensibility, shaped by the redrawing of boundaries of the “seven sisters” and conflicts over land, dictated politics.

The North and the West are where the tragic legacy of 1947 and the population transfer endure in collective memory and a corpus of history and myth, the latter supplying rich fodder for political discourse that gets refilled in times of confrontation between India and Pakistan.

Pulwama, Balakot and the continuing skirmishes in the Kashmir Valley and the border towns of Jammu are grist for the political mill. The BJP, by virtue of the Narendra Modi government’s frontline role in organising the cross-border air sorties, lost no time creaming off the anticipated electoral benefits. The party president, Amit Shah, put out an unverifiable figure on the casualties that resulted from the airstrike on a Balakot seminary although the IAF was characteristically reticent. Hours after India’s first sally, Prime Minister Modi addressed a pre-scheduled meeting in Rajasthan’s Churu where he raised the kind of emotive slogans North India is used to hearing whenever Pakistan is allegedly cornered.

So, how will Balakot play out in the elections? Haryana, West Uttar Pradesh, Jammu, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan are states adjoining Delhi. The national capital is already gripped by a charged “nationalist” narrative. Talk to a small trader and the chances are while a couple of months ago, a political exchange centred around the “pain” caused by demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax, the conversation today is about the “valour and determination” displayed by Modi in swiftly taking on Pakistan. Even the migrants in Delhi’s less well-off “jhuggi jhopadi” settlements are swayed by India’s political and military “might”. A counter question on why 40 young soldiers were killed because of the failure to anticipate a terror strike is put down with the “anti-national” accusation.  So, the refrain is not confined to the BJP or RSS, the sentiment has percolated to the ground.

Haryana, West UP, Jammu, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and even Rajasthan can broadly be classified as “martial” states because of the preponderance of army recruits from this region, which is not to say that other parts are not adequately represented in the military.

Let’s take two regions: Western UP and Haryana. The first has been a BJP stronghold since 1989 because the RSS had for long worked, using the post-Partition settlers as base support and later, fanning out among the Dalits, using them as its foot soldiers. However, it was some time before the BJP pulled the agrarian Jat community into its fold although Jats are prevalent in great numbers in the army and, therefore, could be swayed by the “nationalist” theme. In the coming elections, Ajit Singh, the scion of the Jat icon Chaudhary Charan Singh, has tied up with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BSP to coalesce the Jats, some backward castes, Dalits and Muslims in a rainbow coalition. This swath of land in UP will be a test case to see what persuades the voters more: the caste and community combination or the BJP’s pan-nationalist appeal.

To an extent, Haryana replicates West UP. The Jats form the dominant community in parts of the state and have traditional links with the army. But they also gravitate towards parties that are led by strong community leaders. The Congress ruled Haryana for as long as the Jats backed Bhupinder Singh Hooda. In the last Lok Sabha and the ensuing Haryana elections, Jats were as impacted by the 'Modi wave' as other communities and switched loyalty from Hooda.

However, the anointment of a Punjabi, Manohar Lal Khattar as the chief minister  upset Jats. Their anger manifested itself in the violent agitation for reservation that occurred soon after Khattar took over. From the BJP’s standpoint, despite the setback to governance, the agitation polarised Haryana’s polity into Jat versus the other castes, the latter in the BJP’s favour. The Jat votes stand divided between the Congress and two factions of the INLD, founded by Om Prakash Chautala who’s serving a jail sentence. The feedback from Haryana is even sections of Jats might vote the BJP in the name of “nationalism”.

Before Pulwama happened, the BJP was batting on a slippery wicket. The agrarian crisis, the damage caused by 'note bandi' and GST to small trade, unemployment, distressed sugarcane farmers, cows destructing farm lands because the unproductive animals could not be sent to abattoirs, and a stagnant real estate were issues that overshadowed the BJP’s core Hindutva-nationalist agenda. If the opposition is to confront the BJP on nationalism, it is not by becoming more nationalist, but by changing the narrative and deftly driving it back to the basic issues that impinge on people’s livelihood and make more sense to them than hyperbole.

(The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst)

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Post-Balakot, it’s advantage BJP in North India

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