Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi to engage in a showdown in the2019 Lok Sabha elections.  

Will Pulwama & Balakot Make Voters Re-Elect Modi? Look State-Wise

  • To predict if the Pulwama attack and Balakot airstrike will help PM Modi in the elections, we need to look state-wise.
  • After the Kargil War, the BJP did well in states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. But it suffered in UP.
  • Vajpayee’s own popularity increased by 9.6 percent, mainly because of Kargil. This could happen to Modi as well.
  • Surgical strikes became a major issue in Uttarakhand and UP, but not Punjab.
  • In the end, alliances and economic issues could have a greater say on the final outcome.

No sooner had India conducted an airstrike in Pakistan’s Balakot, many people, including some critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, began congratulating him for winning the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa even gave a number - that the airstrikes could help BJP win 22 seats in Karnataka.

There’s no doubt that the events of the last few weeks - the terror attack in Pulwama on 14 February, India's air strike in Balakot on 27 February, the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and his eventual release - have made Pakistan and terrorism key issues in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

But it would be simplistic to say that Indo-Pak tensions have guaranteed PM Modi a second term in office.

There are three lines of argument that are being made:

  1. An increasing focus on Pakistan will divert attention from the flak the BJP was facing on issues like unemployment, agrarian crisis and the alleged Rafale scam.
  2. Economic issues like unemployment and agrarian distress are too fundamental and affect too many voters to be pushed to the back-burner by the tensions between India and Pakistan.
  3. The entire standoff ended in an embarrassment for India and this could harm Modi in the upcoming elections.

Past confrontations with neighbouring countries had a mixed impact (if any) on elections.

  • The Congress’ vote share and seat share declined in the 1967 general elections, which were held after India’s wars with China (1962) and Pakistan (1965).
  • The 1971 war took place after Indira Gandhi’s victory in the general elections that year. But by the time the next elections were held in 1977, the Congress was defeated largely due to the anger against the Emergency.
  • The 1999 general elections, which were held a few months after India’s conflict with Pakistan in Kargil, saw Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee return to power.
  • The UPA returned to power with a bigger majority in the 2009 elections, despite the BJP attacking it on the terror attacks in Mumbai on 26 November 2008.
  • In the Assembly elections held after 2016 surgical strikes, the BJP captured power in four states (Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur), while the Congress won Punjab.

When we try to predict the electoral impact of the Pulwama attacks and the Balakot airstrike, we need to take a look at the effect of two events on the BJP’s performance: the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2016 surgical strikes.

Kargil Conflict and Vajpayee’s Win in 1999

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government fell in 1999 March. A few months before that - in December 1998 - the BJP suffered defeats at the hands of the Congress in the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. It was not very different from the manner in which it lost Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018. But the Pakistani incursion into Kargil and the subsequent conflict changed equations in significant ways.

Vajpayee’s popularity increased by 9.6 percent between 1998 and 1999, according to the National Election Study conducted by Lokniti-Centre for Study of Developing Societies.

Some 63.5 percent people said that they were “satisfied” with Vajpayee’s handling of the Kargil War. The approval ratings on his handling of the economy were far less impressive, indicating that it was Kargil that provided a boost to his popularity.

However, many point out that there was no significant increase in the BJP’s vote share or seat share between 1998 and 1999. In fact, the party’s vote share actually reduced by 1.8 percent. But this is misleading as the party contested 43 seats less in 1999 due to alliances. Its vote share in the seats it contested increased by 3 percent.

If we go state-wise, the BJP’s vote share increased in states like Goa, Gujarat, Rajasthan but decreased in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh.

One key aspect that emerges from this is that regional parties were far more effective in withstanding the BJP’s rise than the Congress. This explains why the BJP’s vote share fell in Uttar Pradesh but increased in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, where it had just lost Assembly elections to the Congress. The gains in Rajasthan were particularly significant.

The same trend extended to non-Hindi speaking states like Gujarat and Goa, which are also largely two-way contests between the BJP and Congress.

However, the BJP’s gains were neutralised by its losses in Uttar Pradesh - from 58 seats in 1998 to 29 seats in 1999. One of the reasons behind its fall in Uttar Pradesh was the revival of the Congress after Sonia Gandhi took over as party president. Its final tally remained the same as 1998 - 182 seats.

The main reason why the party was able to form a stable government in 1999 was alliances.

  • The TDP and BJP swept 36 out of 42 seats in Andhra Pradesh
  • The BJP-INLD combine won all 10 seats in Haryana
  • The Janata Dal split and one faction led by Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan merged with the Samata Party of George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar to form the Janata Dal (United). The BJP-JD(U) combine won 41 out of the 54 seats in Bihar, compared to 29 a year before.
  • The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance benefited from a split in the Congress and the formation of the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra. They won 28 seats, up from 10 in 1998. This was despite a fall in the BJP’s vote share.

While alliances were the main reason behind the NDA’s success, it cannot be denied that Vajpayee’s increasing popularity after the Kargil conflict made parties like the TDP gravitate towards the NDA.

This is happening in a limited way even in PM Modi’s case.

Soon after the Pulwama attack, the BJP managed to seal its alliance with two key allies – Shiv Sena and Akali Dal – both of whom had threatened to snap ties with it in the recent past.

After the Balakot airstrike, two smaller allies in Uttar Pradesh – Apna Dal and Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party – also partially backed down from their confrontation with the BJP.

Surgical Strikes and 2017 Assembly Polls

The surgical strikes of September 2016 conducted in response to the Uri attack earlier that month gives us an even more direct example to look at the impact of the Pakistan threat as an election issue.

The attack hasn’t quite helped the BJP politically. In every election held since the strikes, the BJP’s vote share has fallen in comparison to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The only exceptions are the North Eastern states.

However, it can be argued that the surgical strikes restricted the loss in vote share that was bound to take place due to the different nature of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections as well as factors like demonetisation and GST.

Let’s take a closer look at three of these states which went to polls barely a few months after the surgical strikes – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand. We have survey data on what people thought of the surgical strikes and whether they considered it an important issue.

Stats show that 47.5 percent voters in Uttarakhand said the surgical strikes were a “very important” issue compared to 28.7 percent in Uttar Pradesh and 19.6 percent in Punjab. On the other hand, 25.7 percent voters in Punjab said that the strikes weren’t an important issue at all.

Even on the broader issue of nationalism, the three states had varying responses.

50.8 percent voters in Uttarakhand said nationalism is “very important” compared to 24.7 percent in Uttar Pradesh and 12.3 percent in Punjab. On the other hand, 28.9 percent voters in Punjab said nationalism wasn’t an important issue at all.

The responses clearly show that voters in different states react differently when it comes to Pakistan as an election issue and the idea of a consolidation around “nationalism” is a bit of a myth.

Here’s What Can Happen In Lok Sabha Polls

  • Let’s take states and union territories where the BJP is in a direct contest against the Congress: Himachal Pradesh (4), Uttarakhand (5), Rajasthan (25), Madhya Pradesh (29), Chhattisgarh (11), Gujarat (26), Daman and Diu (1), Dadra and Nagar Haveli (1), Andaman and Nicobar Islands (1), Goa (2) and Jammu region in Jammu and Kashmir (2). Together, these account for 107 seats in the Lok Sabha. Indo-Pak tensions could become a more important factor in these states compared to others. But BJP won 104 out of these 107 seats. It is unlikely to repeat this feat. At most, a possible change in narrative due to tensions with Pakistan could help it minimise its losses. A lot would depend on the Congress’ ability to use issues like farm loan waivers and unemployment to change the narrative.
  • Three other states and one sub-region where Indo-Pak tensions as an election issue could have some resonance are Haryana (10), Maharashtra (48), Delhi (7) and Chandigarh and Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir. Here the NDA is up against the Congress or a regional party, either contesting together or in alliance. The NDA won 58 out of 67 seats in this cluster. Again, it is unlikely to repeat this feat, despite a possible consolidation because of the Pakistan issue.
  • In states like West Bengal (42) and Odisha (21), where the BJP is the main challenger to the state government headed by a regional party, the Indo-Pak issue could lead to an increase in BJP’s vote share. It can’t be said if this would translate into seats.
  • In states like Bihar (40), Tamil Nadu (39) and Puducherry (1), BJP’s prospects would largely depend on the new alliances it has formed.
  • In Uttar Pradesh (80), Karnataka (28) and Jharkhand (14), the Opposition alliances are formidable and likely to inflict major losses on the BJP. The post-Pulwama consolidation could contain these losses but only to a very limited extent.
  • In Telangana (17), Andhra Pradesh (25), Kerala (20), Punjab (13), Kashmir region in Jammu and Kashmir (3), Sikkim (1) and Lakshadweep (1), the BJP is a marginal player and is unlikely to benefit from the Pakistan issue.
  • The mess created by the Citizenship Bill across the Northeast and the PRC in Arunachal Pradesh, is likely to outweigh any possible consolidation because of Indo-Pak tensions.
  • The change in narrative in the BJP’s favour due to the Pulwama attacks and Balakot Air-Strike could push potential allies towards the BJP but it could also lead to greater consolidation within the Opposition. This is evident in the resumption of dialogue between the Congress and Mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress and AAP in Delhi as well as the Left Front’s olive branch to the Congress in West Bengal and Odisha.