Masood Azhar latest hot topic in campaign politics: BJP, Congress' battle over China's snub likely to go on till polls

Election fever in India means all subjects of national concern are now looked at through a political lens — even when it's one as serious as the Indian Air Force carrying out airstrikes in Pakistan and the South Asian neighbours coming to the brink of war.

These airstrikes were carried out in retaliation to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist group's suicide attack on a CRPF convoy in Jammu and Kashmir's Pulwama district. As many as 42 troops were killed in this attack, leading to an enraged India and war-mongering social media.

The Pulwama attack and the airstrikes in Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bring us to the latest hot topic in politics today — JeM chief Masood Azhar and another failed attempt by India to have him blacklisted by the United Nations, courtesy China.

Masood Azhar latest hot topic in campaign politics: BJP, Congress battle over Chinas snub likely to go on till polls

Indian Muslims stamp on a scratched photo of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar, during a protest against Pakistan in Mumbai. AFP

On Wednesday, China — for the fourth time in 10 years— blocked India's attempt to have Azhar designated as a global terrorist by the UN. The 1267 ISIL (Da'esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council voted on a proposal by the US, UK and France to sanction Azhar, but China, once again, used its veto power against the motion. However, it put the decision on "technical hold" this time, instead of outright rejecting it. All other 14 members of the Security Council supported the bid to place Azhar on the 1267 sanctions list, which would subject him to an assets freeze and travel ban.

Here ensued the battle of the brightest barb among political parties in India.

Undoubtedly shaken by the change in pollsters' opinion of the outcome of the Lok Sabha election after the Balakot airstrikes, the Congress wasted no time in highlighting the BJP-led NDA government's "failure" to have Azhar blacklisted once again.

"Sadly, Modiji's foreign policy has been a series of diplomatic disasters," tweeted Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala, adding that with this move, China had reaffirmed its "position of being an inseparable ally of terrorism’s breeding ground-Pakistan".

From its official Twitter handle, the Grand Old Party also asked: The question on every Indian's mind is, what was the use of all the swinging with Modi and (Chinese) President Xi? A terrorist responsible for such bloody murders is let off the hook again by the BJP."

Priyanka Chaturvedi, another Congress spokesperson, tweeted out images of this very "swinging".

With the Pulwama attack came tremendous pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the Lok Sabha election. After the hype the BJP created around the 2016 surgical strikes, which was a retaliation to the JeM's attack on an army base in Uri, the country expected a similar response. This response came in the form of the airstrikes in Balakot, but China's latest blow to India dampened the high spirits India had been flying on since the IAF operation — something Congress was quick to pick up on.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi charged the prime minister of being "scared" of Xi. "Not a word comes out of his mouth when China acts against India," he tweeted.

Kapil Sibal questioned, "What happened to the Wuhan spirit?" — a reference to Modi's statement after a summit with Xi Jinping in April 2018 when he had said he had a new-found rapport with the Chinese president in the form of the "Wuhan spirit".

The Wuhan summit is believed to have been the turning point in India-China relations after the 2017 faceoff at the Doka La plateau  in the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. It added to Modi's strongman image of making firm decisions even with regard to frenemies like China, helping him add to his own narrative that the previous Congress government was too soft on Beijing and allowing it to walk all over India.

Today, Congress made sure to use the opportunity and throw back at the BJP its own oft-reiterated claim of being weak when faced with China. Party leaders have questioned the bonhomie between Modi and Xi and stressed the disaster that was the Modi government's foreign policy with regard to Beijing.

"It is sobering that the Pulwama murders have been claimed by Jaish, a group that enjoys China's protection at the UN Security Council sanctions committee. What about the 'Wuhan spirit' China and Modi have been touting?" Congress leader Shashi Tharoor had questioned even before the Masood Azhar proposal was submitted at the UN. "In that spirit, can they rein in Pakistan by sanctioning Jaish? Or does that spirit not extend beyond photo ops?"

Noted columnist Sadanand Dhume had the same question. "Not entirely unexpected, but nonetheless a slap to India's face after last month's bloody suicide-bombing in Kashmir. Also raises serious questions about the benefits of Modi's photo-op diplomacy with Xi Jinping."

Not one to hold back, the BJP fired back with its go-to response with anything Congress related — "It's Nehru's fault."

Quoting Rahul's tweet, the BJP said: "China wouldn't be in the UNSC had your great grandfather not 'gifted' it to them at India's cost."

The politics continued with BJP fielding Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to take on Congress and pressure China on the Masood Azhar front. Not the best choice of words by the face of the party at countless press conferences. Chaturvedi responded within seconds, saying Rahul would do just that once the Congress was voted to power. Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah also chipped in with his two cents.

With the Lok Sabha election less than a month away, the Masood Azhar case is likely to remain a poll plank for the rival parties. The BJP is likely to continue to blame India's first prime minister, or even Beijing's lack of cooperation with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in mind — and the Congress is likely to use the subject as ammunition to project that the BJP has been merely piggybacking on the UPA government's 2009 proposal to designate Azhar as a global terrorist.

The NDA government had moved the proposal again  in January 2016 — with the help of the US, the UK and France — after the attack on the airbase at Pathankot, and again in 2017. Even though the UN listed the JeM as a terror group since 2001, China has been adamant on its stance, maintaining that Azhar did not meet "the security council's requirements" to be designated a terrorist.

The BJP has been chest thumping since coming to power about how it has "tackled" terrorism and taken action against militant groups — even though terror attacks spiked since 2014. Modi has often reiterated in his speeches that the world stands with India on countering terrorism because of the efforts of his government. No qualms to say that Congress is bound to use both China's block and Azhar's free reign in Pakistan as a failure of the Modi government in bringing any significant change to the terror scene in India.

Besides the terrorism front, this is also a question of national security and foreign policy, which in China's case, according to Congress, has been a disaster. In addition to the Azhar approach, how India-China ties shape up is also likely to be used as a poll plak now in terms of both diplomacy and trade. China is unlikely to back down — something Congress will probably use to its advantage — especially with India cosying up to the US amid Beijing's trade war with Washington.

National security, terrorism and diplomatic ties with a neighbouring country are not subjects that fade once voting concludes. They remain a hot topic no matter who takes credit for something and who is blamed. What Congress is accusing BJP of failing at today could just become something that it is mocked for in future. Or vice versa, and rinse, repeat. For as long as politics and elections exist, this cycle of who did better will continue — especially in the season of elections — with only the focus of these broader topics changing with time.

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Updated Date: Mar 14, 2019 13:38:52 IST

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