Till the Pulwama suicide attack, the battle of the ballot involved corruption on Rafale procurement on one side, development and non-corrupt governance on the other. The Congress did not have any other corruption case against the government, hence stuck to Rafale. Rahul kept linking it to the Prime Minister.
There were even comments that though it was only suspicion, he was certain the PM was involved. Rahul was aware that accusing Modi of pocketing money would not be effective, considering his frugal background, therefore adopted the easy way out by linking it to specific business houses.
The ignored BJP stalwarts Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie joined hands with Prashant Bhushan to file a case in the apex court challenging the deal.The appeal was dismissed however is again in the courts. No further comments on this as it remains sub-judice.
Pulwama was the turning point of the election battle. The opposition initially remained quiet, claiming support to the forces, till the embers of the funeral pyres subsided. Thereafter they turned their guns onto the government. They accused it of multiple failures including intelligence, the movement of RDX used in the attack and not permitting CAPFs to take the aerial route to the valley, thereby making them a target. They forgot that Kashmir is our territory and movement within it should be dictated by us, not a bunch of terrorists. No one can hold the nation’s security forces hostage.
The BJP remained on the defensive, promising a riposte. Pak was prepared and had deployed its forces to prevent another ground based surgical strike. It had also vacated its terror launch pads located close to the LoC into the interior. They even warned India against attempting any action. ThePrime Minister stated that the response would be given by the armed forces at a time and place of their choosing.
The resultant riposte by the air force impacted the already hot election atmosphere. The launch of a successful airstrike effectively destroying a known Pak terrorist camp gave the BJP new ammunition. The opposition claimed support to the armed forces. The downing of the MIG 21 BISON and the arrest of the pilot appeared to bring the nation together. For once, politicization was on the backfoot as the nation stood together. Every political party knew that questioning the government at this stage was political suicide. The release of Abhinandan was another turning point.
The BJP immediately after the successful strike went on the political offensive bringing national security, national pride and national glory into the gambit of elections. It projected itself as the only government to take the battle of terrorism across the border into Pak. The exploiting of the armed forces for votes had begun.
However, in their zeal and desperation to jump stages ahead of the opposition, they claimed large number of casualties, without truly explaining the impact of the ammunition employed, opening doors to being challenged.
Pakistan simultaneously was in a desperate denial mode. It possibly took journalists to a neighbouring hilltop to indicate no damage. They never showed them the hutments and training camp, which India claimed had been hit. It refused to accept casualties and even hid the downing of a F 16 aircraft and loss of its pilot.
Foreign press followed their own assessment doubting Indian claims, based on the ground visit organized by Pak. It was akin to Pak’s actions post the surgical strikes of 2016. The demand for proof of casualty figures by members of the opposition played into the hands of Pak and foreign media, who claimed that Indian leaders have doubts themselves.Media channels based on their biases supported either view. The air force was back to being questioned by the nation’s own leaders. The battle for the ballot now had a new entity, was the operation a success or a failure.
Attempts by the air force to project images pre and post-strike, explaining the specific intelligent ammunition employed left many unconvinced. The opposition aim was simple. Realizing that the BJP would gain by success of the strike sought to restrict the gains to the barest minimum.
Rafale, which was dying a natural death, was again revived. The revival was helped by the BJP which claimed in the Supreme Court that the report in a section of the press was based on photostat copies of classified papers, impinging national security. The PM’s counter that had the nation possessed the Rafale, the situation would have been different, opened doors for the Congress to rethink. The Congress subsequently announced a shift in strategy from corruption in Rafale to corruption in governance, loss of jobs and other people friendly agenda topics. It realized that to effectively counter the BJP it needed to expand its base of topics.
To add to confusion and place the BJP on the defensive the Congress continued with its offensive of demanding proof of numbers eliminated in the strike. It claimed that it did not doubt the capability of the air force, but since the BJP began quoting numbers, it needed clarity. However, questioning the words of confirmed destruction of the objectives by the air force, the Congress was questioning the authenticity of the air force.
The elections are moving towards a phase of confusing strategies. The BJP is now stronger than it ever was before. Its dual Brahmastras comprising of the power of speech of the PM and the successful strike have placed it at an advantage. The mixed bag approach of the opposition questioning the timing of the suicide attack, failures of the government, figures of casualties and bringing forth poor governance and corruption charges on Rafale would still leave it at a disadvantage.
The public mood is upbeat with the strike and in the belief that for once a Government has acted strongly. Challenging this belief, despite accusations of corruption or failures in Pulwama would not be easy. If the opposition must make a dent in the forthcoming elections, then it needs to reconsider its approach and discover new avenues.
(The author is former Major General)