The deadly terrorist attack in Pulwama in which 42 Central Reserve Police Force jawans died has spawned a perception that popular support will consolidate behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is particularly so as the prime minister has repeatedly stressed upon punishing Pakistan, which has been accused of masterminding Pulwama. In turn, Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan has said his country will retaliate against any punitive action that India takes.
The war-mongering has political pundits mulling its possible impact on the impending 2019 Lok Sabha election. Reminded of the limited war India fought with Pakistan in Kargil from May to July 1999, just three months before the polls in October, they ask: Did it help the BJP win in 1999?
BJP was able to retain in 1999 the 182 seats it had won in 1998. Yet, ironically, the outcome of that election still contradicts the view that war, skirmishes or cross-border campaigns necessarily secure electoral majorities. This is because in 1999 the BJP lost vote-share nationally and even seats in key states.
The party’s all-India vote share fell by two percentage points and in the electorally most crucial state, Uttar Pradesh, where memories of Partition persist to polarise its politics, its vote-share declined by nine percentage points. BJP’s 29-seat tally in Uttar Pradesh in 1999 was a steep drop from 57 seats in 1998. Similarly, it lost six seats in its stronghold, Karnataka, despite increasing its vote share. In Punjab, where the Sikhs, the social group most affected by Partition, are over half the population, its vote-share declined by 2.5 percent and seats fell from three to only one.
These results lead to the conclusion that the role of war and hyper-nationalism in electoral politics may not be as decisive as is believed. This isn’t true just for BJP or the Kargil war. In fact, it is difficult to draw a connection between the India-Pakistan war of 1965 and the outcome of the next national elections held in 1967. Congress’ all-India seat tally declined significantly, from 361 in 1962 to 283 in 1967. Its vote share also dropped from 44.7 to 40.4 percent. Some consider that the unanticipated consequences of war, such as price rise, led to Congress’ decline in 1967. Yet, a two-year gap between the war and the 1967 election blunts this analysis.
Instead, a counterfactual question needs to be asked: Without the limited war in Kargil, would BJP have performed as it did in 1999? The Kargil tensions lasted for a full three months. Coffins of soldiers draped in the national flag dominated the round-the-clock televised coverage of the war. India was also successful in expelling Pakistani intruders. Yet, the electoral outcome was not as decisive as India’s victory. Nor did it match the outpouring of popular sentiments.
Another relevant factor in 1999 was then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose popularity was on the rise since 1996, and grew continuously until 2004, when he and the BJP government were voted out of power. His popularity, therefore, cannot be attributed to Kargil alone. He towered over all others, including those in the Congress. When people were surveyed on who they wanted to see as prime minister, the response would overwhelmingly be Vajpayee.
Modi is today’s Vajpayee – and more. Modi is perceived as decisive. He had through his five years espoused a tit-for-tat policy against Pakistan. But therein is the catch – should he fail to verifiably demonstrate his capacity to punish Pakistan for Pulwama, he could leave many disappointed.
Sure, he could also keep fanning the flames of nationalism, the way Indira Gandhi did after 1971. The narrative of nationalism tends to unite people across class, caste, regional and religious divides. It is quite similar to the unity that an international sporting victory forges among a people. War and sports define national identity.
And, therefore, the million-rupee question: Can Modi and the BJP maintain the nationalistic fervour to come within the sniffing distance of power, without retaliating against Pakistan? Perhaps, as data from the 1999 election shows, the jury’s still out.
Updated Date: Feb 25, 2019 23:45:06 IST