Can a massively-funded and aggressive media campaign make people choose a particular leader? If the 2014 Lok Sabha election established the success of a well-curated PR strategy, the campaign narrative preceding the 2019 Lok Sabha election is a test case on whether sentiments of militarism and hyper-nationalism can whip up enough support to consolidate the personality cult around a leader.
The case in point here is the Bharatiya Janata Party's poll rhetoric and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's own recent speeches.
On Monday, canvassing for his Hindu-nationalist party in Maharashtra's Dindori, Modi invoked the Sri Lanka Easter day blast within 24 hours of the tragedy to make his poll pitch. Three days on from the tragic serial blasts, the toll is still climbing; the latest figures reveals at least 359 people died, including 13 Indians and 45 children.
Perhaps with the intent to project himself before voters as the sole leader capable of "finishing" off terrorism, Modi said, "When you go to vote and press the 'Lotus' (the BJP's poll symbol) button... keep it in mind that you are pressing that button to eliminate terrorism. Your finger has that power. Pressing the lotus button will strengthen my resolve to fight against terrorism." He then asked a cheering crowd: "Who can do this? Can you think of any name aside from Modi’s?"
"Yesterday (on Sunday), bomb blast happened in Sri Lanka. Hundreds were killed, that too, on the auspicious occasion of Easter. They were praying to their god when they were killed,” he asked the crowd if the situation in India was not similar to this before 2014. "What was the situation in India before 2014 — every other day there used to be a blast in some or the other corner of the country," he said.
The mention of the tragedy in a political rally did not go down well with many Sri Lankans, who took to Twitter to express their shock.
How quickly Sri Lanka's tragedy became India's election fodder is shocking. Our country is in grief and their media and (BJP) politicians aren't helping
— Indi Samarajiva (@indica) April 21, 2019
If the tragedy that struck a neighbouring nation could become poll fodder, the usual tradition of Pakistan-bashing wasn't too far behind.
On Sunday too, the prime minister had used the plank of militaristic nationalism to propel his poll narrative. Speaking at a rally in Gujarat, the prime minister signalled that he had threatened Pakistan with a nuclear attack if Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, captured during the recent airspace aggression between the two neighbours, was not released unscathed. He said he had sent a stern warning to Pakistan after it captured Varthaman – release him or face the consequences. "Pakistan had to release the pilot or it could become a qatl ki raat (night of deaths)," he said.
Varthaman's face has been a constant presence in BJP's poll rallies despite Election Commission taking objection to invoking armed forces in political rallies.
Delhi BJP leader Sarita Chaudhary kicked up a veritable storm when she put up a political hoarding featuring Varthaman, while another BJP MLA Om Prakash from Delhi was recently served two show cause notices by the poll panel for posting photos featuring the IAF pilot who downed a Pakistani F-16 jet before being hit by Pakistani fire and crashing in the neighbouring nation's territory.
If this was not enough to rub in the point, social media pages promoting the BJP widely shared a picture of a person looking like Varthaman with a saffron scarf carrying the lotus symbol. The caption shared with the image blatantly claimed that the IAF pilot has come out in support of Narendra Modi and also cast his vote for BJP as he endorses that 'there can be no better prime minister than Modi'. Later, media outlets bust the fake claims but the damage (or gains from the move) perhaps may have already been done. At least one of the posts dated 13 April still exists and had 4.3k shares at the time of writing this article.
In another rally at Rajasthan's Barmer, Modi brought up the air strike to say that "we killed terrorists in their home." He also said India is no more afraid of nuclear threats of Pakistan.
"Pakistan used to give nuclear threats every now and then. What do we have? Have we kept it for 'Diwali'? (Warna aay din nuclear button hai, ye kehte the. Hamare paas kya hai? Humne ye diwali ke liye rakha hai kya), Modi asserted.
The comment invoked strong reactions from the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), which criticised the Indian Prime Minister's public nuclear sabre-rattling.
"To speak so casually about the possible use of nuclear weapons and that too for the purposes of winning votes through arousal of hatred and by promoting an ugly, masculinist militarism, is deeply disturbing. The very least that is demanded from nuclear armed governments is that their leaders should display some sense of responsibility and sobriety in what they say and do. That Prime Minister Modi has disregarded all this only goes to reinforce the view that South Asia is potentially the most dangerous place in the world," their statement read.
In Chittorgarh, he went on to invoke Maharana Pratap and Rani Padmini, and said, "Do you want to see a strong Bharat or a helpless Bharat. Do you want an India that gives a befitting reply to Pakistan and terrorists or one that is subdued by it and sits quietly after a terror attack?"
What becomes clear in all these speeches is no longer just the desire to put forward a macho image of India under Modi's leadership. While this is evident, there's a greater thrust on pushing the idea of Modi as something of a 'wartime prime minister', who unlike his apparently weak-willed predecessor, is willing to do what needs to be done in defence of his country. Obviously, the 'war' in which Modi's India is engaged isn't like the conventional wars of old. The present 'war' is an unconventional one against terrorism, belligerent neighbours, illegal immigrants and various other threats. And courageously leading the vanguard is the prime minister.
A look at speeches by other BJP leaders is indicative: Earlier this month, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath — who was subsequently reprimanded — spoke of the Indian Army as "Modiji ki Sena" and on Monday in West Bengal, BJP president Amit Shah referred to the Indian Air Force, saying, "Modi ordered his air force... and our aircraft blew the terrorists to pieces in Pakistan".
Both in the early days of 2014 campaign, and the initial few years of Modi government, the impetus was on the agenda of development and the "politics of performance". It wasn't uncommon for the candidate Modi and later the Prime Minister of India to reel off comparative figures from Nehru-Gandhi era (and later from his own term) to showcase how he plans to herald acche din. But, in the later stages of campaigning the gloves were off, and an increasingly strident BJP turned back to the hardline Hindu narrative; now, a very hawkish and wartime take on national security is the new plank and and the humbling slogan of sabka saath, sabka vikas lies all but forgotten.
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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 15:57:37 IST