'Prior to Pulwama, the BJP appeared to be on the defensive, uncertain of its stop-and-go development programmes, fearful of growing discontent among agriculturists and unemployed youth, and nervous of gathering steam among Opposition parties across regional and caste alliances,' says Sunil Sethi.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
The fraught fortnight of February that raised India-Pakistan hostilities to fever pitch may have subsided, but their effects won]t easily go away.
They are now the central focus of Narendra Modi's election campaign as he galvanises nationalist fervour during breathless nationwide tours.
Gone is the development-for-all promise of 'Sabka saath, sabka vikas' underpinned by a plea to voters of 'Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar' that swept the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in 2014 with an unprecedented mandate.
In an avalanche of advertising aimed at winning hearts and minds, the new slogan is 'Namumkin ab mumkin hai' (The impossible is now possible) -- a line as vague as its dream of la-la land.
What happened to the all-consuming issues of spiralling joblessness, farmers's distress, the lingering pain of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax, and the alleged corruption in the Rafale aircraft deal?
They are off the BJP's radar; as to the persisting thorn in its flesh of the Rafale deal, the government's overbearing response has been to try suppressing The Hindu's investigations under the Official Secrets Act.
Between Pulwama and the heralded return of fighter pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, came the Balakot air strikes, an event now obscured in a miasma of lies or half-truths.
Only future historians will tell us how many died in the Jaish-e-Muhammad terrorist camps -- 'a very large number', as the foreign secretary said, or 250 as BJP President Amit Anilchandra Shah claims, or 300 as some of the clairvoyant media -- firmly aboard the nationalist bandwagon -- repeatedly announced.
Swathes of the media, cocooned by the anonymity of unnamed sources, have had a field day. Balakot remains, in Churchill's wartime phrase, 'a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.'
Whatever the amount of ammunition India dropped inside the LoC, it spent a great deal of ballast in mustering international support to blackball Pakistan's furtive provocations in Kashmir.
Whereas much of the democratic world unanimously condemned Pakistan as the home base of jihadi terrorism, the glow of India's 'guest of honour' invitation to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's summit in Abu Dhabi -- and Pakistan's ensuing protest -- was dulled by its insistence on drumming up Kashmir and Indian atrocities in the valley.
The OIC is a 57-member oil-rich club with each country holding the right of veto; not much gets done without its call to Muslim brethren and distributing largesse among the faithful.
A few days after Pulwama, Saudi Arabia's sinister strongman Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman landed in Pakistan with a no-strings-attached gift of $20 billion, the first, he said, of a package that will 'grow each month and every year'. Imran Khan drove him personally to his official residence.
Oil-dependent India, with nearly three times as many Indian workers in Saudi as Pakistan, also welcomed MBS warmly.
But If OIC leaders equivocate with cash injections to pep up Pakistan's failed economy, China, its other patron and exacting money-lender, has impassively sat on the fence during the Pulwama-Balakot face-off.
The inescapable fact is that, like Lady Macbeth's 'damned spot', the blood stains in Kashmir show no sign of vanishing. According to Ajai Shukla, 45 military personnel, including the 40 in Pulwama, have already died in the first two months of 2019 -- that is already half the number of 90 in all of 2018.
The number of terrorists 'neutralised' may have doubled since 2014 -- the year the BJP came to power -- but civilian deaths have tripled -- from 28 in 2014 to 86 in 2018.
In the surge of election rhetoric, however, the Balakot narrative is being projected by Mr Modi as not only a triumphant vindication of Pulwama, but as the successful taming of Pakistan.
As the post-Pulwama backlash against Kashmiris grew, his words of balm were: 'Children of Kashmir are suffering because of terrorists... They are standing with us to eliminate (terrorists) and we need them.'
Some of his utterances have been off-colour -- terming the captured wing commander 'a pilot project' or distinctly off the mark -- the claim that India would have been more effective if we had the Rafale aircraft.
Will this have a cumulative influence on more than 800 million voters in a few weeks's time?
The election story is bound to change; the question how much?
Prior to Pulwama, the BJP appeared to be on the defensive, uncertain of its stop-and-go development programmes, fearful of growing discontent among agriculturists and unemployed youth, and nervous of gathering steam among Opposition parties across regional and caste alliances.
On a packed Jaipur-Delhi flight some days before Pulwama, I happened to sit next to Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar (in a back seat and mildly surprised that he refused to occupy Row A). Although he defended his party's proficiency in conducting door-to-door campaigns he was silent when a woman passenger sharply asked, 'Chief Minister sahib, what was the need to change Gurgaon's name to Gurugram?'
Today, he would be aggressively cock-a-hoop as the BJP leadership goes into battle to reap the benefits of Pulwama-Balakot and woo the electorate to jump on the nationalist bandwagon.
Sab kuch mumkin hai (Everything is possible).