A-SAT test ahead of polls bid to shift focus from bread-and-butter issues: PM seeks to benefit from nationalism debate
The EC will decide whether Narendra Modi's speech on Mission Shakti violated the Model Code of Conduct, but there is little doubt that the move was a political one.
It is up to the Election Commission to decide whether Narendra Modi's Wednesday speech announcing the success of Mission Shakti was in violation of the Model Code of Conduct
But there is little doubt that the move was a political one
The move sure was BJP's attempt to portray 2014 as the breakthrough year when a paradigm shift took place in almost all matters involving national security.
While it is up to the Election Commission to decide whether Narendra Modi's Wednesday speech announcing the success of Mission Shakti was in violation of the Model Code of Conduct, there is little doubt that the move was a political one.
The prime minister made sure that he held the nation in rapt attention when he announced that India has now entered the elite group of nations who are capable of shooting down an enemy satellite flying in a Low Earth Orbit. By putting out a cryptic tweet almost 40 minutes before he addressed the nation, Modi had everybody on the edges of their seats. One WhatsApp forward suggested in jest that in his teaser, the prime minister should have also hinted whether folks should run towards an ATM or a bunker. As the appointed hour came and went with no sign of the prime minister on their screens, debate intensified — in homes and offices, buses and metro trains, on Twitter and television channels.
But once the announcement was made, pat came the Opposition's reaction. While Akhilesh Yadav slammed Modi for hogging 'free air time', Mamata Banerjee said that the move proved the BJP was desperate to save its 'sinking boat.'
On the other hand, the BJP leadership lined up to pat Modi's back for the success of the mission. The party’s social media team has also been strategically pointing out that Modi deserved credit for having the ‘courage’ to give a go-ahead for the project, something they allege that the previous UPA government stopped short of.
The prime minister himself asserted in Thursday's rally in Meerut, that the government has conducted 'surgical strikes' in land, sky and space.
The move may wriggle through the technicalities of MCC, but it surely shows chinks in the BJP's armour. A government that sailed through most polls in the first half of its tenure and managed to maintain its hold on several states despite a reduction in vote shares, should ideally rest its case on its report card of five years and not emotive appeals. But the desperate attempt to shift focus back to national security — considered Modi's strong point but arguably quite removed from the real-life struggles of citizens — indicates that the BJP is certainly showing signs of nervousness ahead of polls.
A Pew Research Centre survey, published just a day before Modi's dramatic announcement, said the lack of employment opportunities and rising prices are India’s most pressing challenges.
Although polls showed that the prime minister's popularity remained higher than any other leader at the time, the Pew survey found that the proportion of people "happy with the way things are going" in the country has also fallen by 15 percentage points since the previous year (from 70% in 2017 to 55% in 2018).
The survey also indicated that although people expressed frustrations and concerns over national security, they still opined that the biggest issues were unemployment and inflation.
Seventy-six percent said employment is a very big problem and little has changed over the past year. While just one in five persons (21 percent) said job opportunities have become better, 67 percent believed it has gotten worse. The study said 73 percent believe inflation is a very big problem in India. As many as 65 percent said prices have gotten worse. Agricultural crisis too featured prominently.
In 2018, despite an estimated 3.5 percent formal unemployment rate, 18.6 million Indians were jobless and another 393.7 million worked in poor-quality jobs vulnerable to displacement, according to estimates by the International Labour Office.
As far as agriculture is concerned, a glut in production of many of India’s staple foods has led to a sharp decline in prices, badly hitting the rural economy in large and populous states (read politically important ones) such as Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.
A similar survey conducted by Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) also found that better employment opportunities, better healthcare and drinking water are the top priorities for the voters at the all-India level.
"The significance of better employment opportunities as voters' highest priority has increased by 56.67 per cent from 30 per cent in 2017 to 47 per cent in 2018. At the same time, the performance of the government on this issue declined from 3.17 to 2.15 on a scale of five," the ADR survey noted.
In fact, the ADR survey carried more bad news for Modi as it found that amongst the 32 states and Union Territories that were surveyed, in 29 of them, voters have given below average ratings to the government for its performance on all top 3 voters' priorities at the state level. "This is with the exception of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, and Puducherry," the findings of the survey noted. Farmers’ anger over falling crop prices was a factor behind the BJP’s defeat in three major state elections in December and the bread-and-butter issues like the state of the economy, employment, and welfare are not going to vanish overnight.
On the back of all this, the Congress promised a major dole-out package to 20 percent of the poorest families in India. Although it is too early to gauge whether Congress' NYAY scheme could become a talking point amid voters, electoral history shows that populist promises go a long way in delivering favourable electoral outcomes.
Hence, from the BJP's perspective, a change in the narrative was in order. Further, there are some obvious benefits from it.
The same Pew survey that was conducted much before the ghastly Pulwama attack — that squarely put national security and anti-Pakistan sentiment back in focus — found that about 76 percent of Indians believe that Pakistan is a threat to the country.
Even ahead of the Pulwama attack, 53 percent of respondents said the situation in Kashmir had deteriorated over the last five years, with just 18 percent believing it had improved. Further, 58 percent of respondents said the government should step up its military action against Pakistan. Also, it is noteworthy that the nationalism debate is a tried and tested policy for BJP.
Opinion polls conducted before the tensions with Pakistan escalated had forecast that the BJP would struggle to win a majority because of a slowing economy, low rural incomes and the government’s failure to boost job growth. But an opinion poll conducted by India TV-CNX after the air strikes forecast that the BJP could win 41 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh. That is still well below the 73 seats the BJP won in 2014, but it is 12 seats more than the number predicted by a poll conducted before the air strikes.
Moreover, a ground report from Uttarakhand suggests that voters who still miss out on basic facilities such as roads, bridges and schools, are also deeply enamoured by a muscular national security policy they usually associate with Modi's government.
Dhan Singh Rawat, who runs a line hotel in Devprayag in Tehri Garhwal region, says, “Kisi aur ko vote dene ka sawal hi nahin hai. Hamein Modi jaisa neta chahiye. Surgical strike aur air strike ke baad mere gaon mein log bahut khush hain. Bade faisle karne ke liye himmat chahiye. Char dham road aur Rishikesh karnprayag railway line lane ke baare mein Modi hi soch sakte the. Kisi aur ke bas ki baat nahin hai (There is no question of voting for anybody else. We want a leader like Modi. The people in my village are very happy after the surgical strike and air strike was conducted. Only Modi could have thought about bringing big projects like all-weather road and Rishikesh Karnprayag railway line in our state. No other leader has the capacity to think big about us)."
When asked about migration and other local issues, another voter said, “Ye sab toh chalta hi rahega lekin hamein baahri muddon ke liye ek hona chahiye. Desh ke muddon par, apni pareshaaniya bhool kar ek hona padega (These problems can be solved later but it is important to unite against outer threats)."
A report in Reuters also makes similar observations. Bandu Belkar, a 34-year-old farmer from Maharashtra who voted for the BJP in the 2014 general election, said he was unhappy with the government’s apathetic behaviour towards farming and had almost made up his mind to vote for the opposition Congress this time. "But after the air strikes, I have changed my mind. We need a strong leader like Modi to defeat Pakistan," said Belkar
Thus a shift in focus was what BJP sorely needed, and that is what it has got — looking at Union ministers' and BJP's Twitter handle, the party has been going gung ho since Wednesday. So, if the move was not political, are any benefits arising out of it purely incidental? Looks unlikely.
As another article in Firstpost points out that the move was likely to be part of the BJP's attempt to portray 2014 as the breakthrough year when a paradigm shift took place in almost all matters involving national security. The BJP wants to maintain the focus on issues of national security since it reckons that the Balakot air strikes and Mission Shakti will jostle for space in the electoral campaign.
However, another possibility is that the effect of Mission Shakti, which was too technical a subject to sustain popular interest over a long period, could wane in a fortnight or so. In such a scenario, Modi must work out the alliance math to win a second term.
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