On March 1, Congress President Rahul Gandhi addressed public meetings in Mumbai and Dhule, a small town in Northern Maharashtra. He deliberated on many significant subjects including agrarian crisis and housing for slum dwellers. But he touched upon India’s air strikes on terrorist camps in Pakistan and the subsequent events only very briefly. It was on the same day that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman had returned to India. From the media to Congress workers, everyone was surprised by Rahul’s approach. National security is going to be one of the subjects of priority during the election campaign. It is a crucial and sensitive issue. Why did Rahul avoid focusing on it? Is he afraid to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s narrative? Or are opposition parties defensive about BJP’s war mongering techniques? These were the obvious, but important questions on the minds of journalists immediately after Rahul’s meeting.
Rahul Gandhi had conducted himself in a dignified manner after the Pulwama attack. He supported the government in the moment of crisis and avoided any form of criticism, which was appreciated by citizens. He showed maturity. But Prime Minister Modi continued with his aggressive election speeches, attacked the Gandhi family and opposition to gain political mileage. He blamed the UPA for delay in Rafale delivery and said it affected today’s confrontation with Pakistan. At a science and technology ministry function, he went a step further and said, “One pilot project has been completed. Now we have to make it ‘Real’.” He didn’t miss a single opportunity to exploit the Balakot attack. He even accused the opposition of helping Pakistan in a rally in Patna. Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal tried to counter him, but Rahul chose to keep quiet. At the India Today Conclave, Modi pushed his nationalism narrative further and accused the opposition of insulting the Indian Army. Yet, until today, Rahul Gandhi has not issued a strong rebuttal.
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Rahul and the opposition can ask several pertinent questions about the entire India-Pakistan stand off without compromising India’s position. Modi government has not at all been transparent on the Balakot air strike and its aftermath. The foreign secretary of India claimed that Indian Air Force planes were successful in destroying Jaish-e-Mohammad’s terror camp. But the controversy began when he refused to take questions from the press. The IAF said it would be premature to arrive at the number of persons killed in the strikes, yet the media peddled numbers ranging from 200-600.
From where did the figure come? It is obvious that the ‘unofficial government sources’ fed this information to the pliable media. But international media platforms like BBC, CNN, Reuters busted these claims by publishing ground reports. The Indian Express report doubted whether IAF planes crossed LoC. Highlighting these loopholes, Pakistan invited international media to inspect the site at Balakot.
Apart from the battle between the armies, a battle of perceptions has been playing out between Pakistan PM Imran Khan and Modi. By his peace appeal in the parliament and subsequent release of Wing Commander Abhinandan, Imran successfully played to the domestic and international audience as a ‘Shantidoot’ (messenger of peace). There was international pressure on both countries to de-escalate. Modi and his friendly media claimed it was India’s victory, but Congress and opposition have failed to challenge this false narrative.
The Opposition’s Silence
One of the biggest problems with Rahul’s reticence on speaking about national security is that the Pulwama attack is no longer part of the narrative. It was Mumbai-based Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray, who demanded an inquiry of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, while no national leader supported his demand. The families of the slain CRPF jawans have demanded investigation into the security lapse at Pulwama. After the 26/11 Mumbai attack, the opposition, including the BJP, had vigorously demanded the Manmohan Singh government to take moral responsibility. Union Home minister Shivraj Patil, Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilas Deshmukh and home minister R.R. Patil had to resign.
However, after Pulwama, nobody from the Modi government has had the courage to take moral responsibility. But Rahul, by failing to keep harping on it, has allowed Modi to get off the hook. Modi took full advantage of the Parliament being suspended and began war mongering. Unfortunately, the opposition too fell into his trap.
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Modi and BJP would definitely reap the benefits of this India-Pakistan confrontation. In fact, they have already started it. Yeddyurappa even claimed it would help BJP win 22 seats in Karnataka. Amit Shah is ever ready to cash on this ‘nationalist’ narrative. BJP has given full page advertisements in newspapers. Its workers have put up hoardings all over the cities.
The narrative is loud and clear. Modi is India and whoever opposes him, is opposing the Indian Army and is India’s enemy. This narrative is not new. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin operated similarly. Dictators are megalomaniacs. But in recent past, when Margaret Thatcher tried to pull it off during the Falkland war, BBC refused to tow her line. Russia’s Putin or Turkey’s Erdogan are following this autocratic path too. Opposition in these countries have surrendered before them. Indian opposition will face the same fate if they are bogged down by Modi’s theatrics.
Whether Modi wins the Lok Sabha elections on this narrative depends on how the opposition responds to it. The war mongering will not have its impact on the South and Northeast of the country, but will have a huge effect on the Hindi heartland and Western India. If the Congress and opposition can expose Modi’s lies, powerfully put facts before the voter and bring back focus on important issues such as the agrarian crisis and unemployment, it would succeed in stopping Modi’s chariot.
Modi is trying to become Putin or Erdogan of India. He will hide all his failures under the garb of nationalism. National security plus Hindutva is a deadly mix. But the opposition can take heart from the fact that Vajpayee’s BJP did not get a clear majority after the Kargil war. Winston Churchill could not win domestic elections after the victory in World War 2. No one can take the voters for granted.
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