Then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. (Photograph: Narendra Modi/Twitter)

Elections 2019: Balakot As ‘Kargil 2.0’ Re-Election Strategy? No, Modi Sir, No

BloombergQuintOpinion

Candidate Narendra Modi was the Pradhan Sevak (Prime Helper) and the seer of vikas or development in 2014 (I almost used ‘evangelist’ instead of seer but realised that our current rulers simply don’t have the sense of humour to tolerate a nuance or metaphor).

Elections 2019: Balakot As ‘Kargil 2.0’ Re-Election Strategy? No, Modi Sir, No

But today, Prime Minister Modi has transformed himself into the Pradhan Senapati, or Chief Warrior, who wears armour, threatens to slice off the arms of the enemy (read Pakistan or fidayeen), and promises to hunt ‘em down in space or under the oceans (“antriksh main ya paataal main”). Those who oppose him (read Congress, the Gandhi family, and Mamata Bannerjee) are in cahoots with Pakistan and terrorists. He even asked first-time voters to “dedicate” their ballot to the “Balakot fighters and Pulwama martyrs”, a thinly veiled attempt to appropriate India’s military heroes. Only Modi can save ‘us’ from these tukde tukde desh drohis (anti-national conspirators), he thunders at the hustings, addressing himself in the third person. His political shadows follow suit – Amit Shah accuses Rahul Gandhi of “contesting from Pakistan” because of the sea of green IUML flags in Gandhi’s second constituency of Wayanad; while Adityanath calls it a battle between “their Ali and our Bajrang Bali” (their Muslim and our Hindu deities).

The BJP’s Sankalp Patra (election manifesto) has now removed every doubt – yes, Prime Minister Modi is going to battle on the single war cry of national security and jingoism (euphemistically called ‘nationalism’). The Balakot air attack and post-Uri surgical strikes shall be his mascots. To abort the “balkanisation of India” shall be his mission. And an unprecedented promise to scrap Article 35A guaranteeing special rights to Kashmiris shall be his nationalism-imbued-but-communally-polarising missile. It’s an incendiary cocktail to mute Modi’s indifferent record on agriculture, poverty, employment, and the economy.

It’s The ‘Kargil 2.0’ Strategy a la Vajpayee

Many of Modi’s bhakts (religious-political fans) are calling it his ‘Kargil 2.0 Strategy’. They point towards a fantastic coincidence – just as Prime Minister Vajpayee gained nearly 10 percentage points in his approval ratings after the Kargil war in 1999, Modi has bounced back with a similar accretion after Balakot. And just as Vajpayee had shrugged off losses in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi to triumph in the national polls a few months later, they expect Modi to reconquer India in May 2019.

It’s a rather simple and unidimensional strategy – just plug away at the ‘war card’ – and bingo, you shall win just as Vajpayee did. Don’t distract yourself and the electorate with other issues. Just flog Pakistan and Muslims, invoke radical Hindutva, fear, terrorism, opposition’s “weak and cowardly leaders”, and claim your rightful victory. It shall be an easy game, set and match.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Churu, Rajasthan on the day of the Balakot air srike, Feb. 26, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Churu, Rajasthan on the day of the Balakot air srike, Feb. 26, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

But I believe Prime Minister Modi and his strategists are being a tad over-confident and simplistic, seduced by opinion polls on fawning television news channels. I would argue that Vajpayee’s victory in 1999 cannot be attributed to Kargil. There were, in fact, four other reasons (which are missing for Modi) why Vajpayee won, and Kargil was merely an attractive tip of the iceberg.

One: Massive Sympathy After One-Vote Loss

Vajpayee was barely 13 months into his tenure—not long enough for the incumbency honeymoon to eviscerate—when he was felled in a dramatic, Shakespearean tragedy. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK withdrew support, forcing Vajpayee to seek a vote of confidence. Mayawati met him in the morning and promised support.

AB Vajpayee with Mayawati at a meeting in New Delhi. (Photograph: PTI)
AB Vajpayee with Mayawati at a meeting in New Delhi. (Photograph: PTI)

The nation heaved a sigh of relief. People wanted a “strong” leader, who had detonated nuclear weapons and stood against American sanctions, to continue. But Mayawati stabbed Vajpayee in the back by voting against his government, creating a 269-269 draw. That storm may have passed, since the Speaker’s casting vote would have saved the government, but destiny had another cruel twist in store for the beleaguered Prime Minister. Giridhar Gamang, then the Congress Chief Minister of Odisha (ironically now a BJP candidate for the 2019 polls), who had yet to resign from his Lok Sabha membership, exercised a hugely contentious vote to make the score 269-270, a heart-aching one-vote loss!

Was it ethical for Gamang to have voted? Should the Speaker have disqualified him? Why did Vajpayee not challenge this legislative excess in court? All these questions were left swirling as Vajpayee chose to resign after giving a rousing speech. “Just one vote defeated the will of 800 million Indians”, he lamented. Most shrewdly, he had figured the groundswell of sympathy this saga of “betrayal, chicanery, and one vote” would create in his favour. He knew he had as good as won a landslide whenever the next polls were held.

Two: After Six Prime Ministers In Ten Years, India Was Yearning for Stability

VP Singh (11 months), Chandrashekhar (effectively, five months), PV Narasimha Rao (five years), Atal Bihari Vajpayee (first term, 13 days), HD Deve Gowda (11 months), and Inder Gujral (effectively, nine months) – India was terrified and tired of chronic political instability from 1989 through 1998.

Former Prime Ministers of India VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar, PV Narasimha Rao, AB Vajpayee, HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral. (Photograph: NMML/Government of India)
Former Prime Ministers of India VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar, PV Narasimha Rao, AB Vajpayee, HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral. (Photograph: NMML/Government of India)

Finally, Vajpayee had brought a veneer of permanence in his second stint. The fact that it was so cruelly and crudely cut short incensed the people, who made a silent vow to do “justice to Vajpayee” at the next available opportunity.

Also read: Elections 2019: Will Modi Pull Off An Indira (1971) Or Fall Like Vajpayee (2004)?

Three: Vajpayee’s Big Political Heart And Tent Of Alliances

Unlike Modi, Vajpayee expanded his footprint with admiring allies. He had 69 supporting MPs from parties which are now Modi’s arch enemies. Some, like Mamata’s TMC, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD and Stalin’s DMK are likely to double, even quadruple, their tallies in 2019 compared to what they had notched up in 1999:

Elections 2019: Balakot As ‘Kargil 2.0’ Re-Election Strategy? No, Modi Sir, No

Also read: Elections 2019: Congress Can Learn How BJP Used And Poached Allies

Four: Congress’s Disastrous Panchmarhi Policy Of Ekla Chalo (Go It Alone)

In early September of 1998, Sonia Gandhi’s Congress met at Panchmarhi in Madhya Pradesh to resolve that the Congress would shun political alliances in order to rebuild its earlier country-wide political base. Potential allies like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav cried “betrayal”. In stark contrast to Vajpayee’s inclusive politics, Congress had chosen splendid, but weak, isolation. Unsurprisingly, it got shellacked in the polls.

File photo of Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Sonia Gandhi. (Photograph: PTI)
File photo of Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Sonia Gandhi. (Photograph: PTI)

Balakot, Like Kargil, Is Only The Tip Of The Iceberg

As is clear from the above analysis, four critical and substantial factors were responsible for Vajpayee’s storied victory in 1999. Kargil got undue and misleading credit in popular folklore. Blind-sided by that, Prime Minister Modi’s bellicose ‘Balakot is Kargil 2.0, so elect me’ plank could be chasing a red herring. By putting all his political slingshots in the Balakot/Pakistan quiver, Modi could be creating a narrow, fragile, one-point narrative, thereby notching a tally that could fall woefully short of what he had won in 2014.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.