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Military action doesn't guarantee poll gains

October 13, 2016 10:54 IST

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar wants the Modi government and BJP to reap the profit of the surgical strikes.
But electoral history suggests a political party's ability to exploit military successes for poll gains has a mixed record, report Archis Mohan and Sahil Makkar.

IMAGE: Large hoardings in Uttar Pradesh praise the Modi government and the Indian Army for the surgical strikes. Photograph: ANI/Twitter

The army's September 29 surgical strike to avenge the Uri terrorist attack has brought a spring in the steps of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and smiles back on the faces of its cadres.

The BJP hopes that the Narendra Modi government's response to Pakistan might help it electorally in the coming state assembly polls, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. The other states going to the polls are Punjab, Manipur, Goa and Uttarakhand.

Last Friday, BJP chief Amit Shah said the effort wasn't to politicise the issue, but the cadre would take the strikes' message to the people, to increase the morale of the armed forces. He said the Indira Gandhi-led Congress had used the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war for political gains.

However, and as Indira Gandhi discovered in the 1970s, electoral history suggests a political party's ability to exploit military successes for poll gains has a mixed record.

As was seen during a recent visit to the border district of Amritsar, local issues continue to take priority over nationalistic fervour.

Neither the celebrations by BJP cadres in the wake of the strikes or a visit soon after by state Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal to the border areas has changed the public mood in Dhanoe Kalan village, barely a km from the border.

Sucha Singh, an elder in the village who has seen the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1999, says the army action will not make any difference to the results of the assembly election.

"People have already made up their minds. This time, people will vote for a change to save Punjab," he avers.

The Akali-BJP alliance has ruled Punjab for the past 10 years, and people seemed eager to vote them out.

"This time the fight is to save Punjab," says Harbhajan Singh, another villager.

In bustling Ludhiana, 150 km from the border village, the mood is similar.

Data from previous elections also suggest that wars or military mobilisations have seldom helped governments at the Centre to gain electoral advantage in either Uttar Pradesh or Punjab.

Elections to both were held barely a couple of months after the December 13, 2001 attack on Parliament and the subsequent mobilisation of forces (Operation Parakram) at the border by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

The BJP-Akali Badal-led coalition lost power to the Congress' Amarinder Singh; in UP, the BJP was reduced from being the single-largest party to number three (see chart).

UP and Punjab behaved similarly in the post-Kargil contest for the Lok Sabha in 1999.

If the BJP won 11 of the 13 seats in 1998, this got reduced to three in 1999. Voters in UP brought the party down from the 57 Lok Sabha seats it won in 1998 to 29 in 1999. It hurt the party that it had thrown out a leader like Kalyan Singh.

At the national level, the Kargil conflict did help the BJP retain its number of seats, gain in urban areas and again form the government. But, its total vote share, compared to the 1998 elections, came down (see chart).

India's most famous victory against Pakistan came in the 1971 war. Indira Gandhi won a comfortable electoral victory on the back of her Garibi Hatao slogan in the March Lok Sabha elections (nine months before the war began).

With Pakistan's surrender in December that year, she was feted as Durga. The euphoria, however, couldn't overwhelm the disaffection because of price rise and other issues, and the government faced a groundswell of public ire by 1973.

In response, Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975 and lost power in 1977.

In 1987, the Rajiv Gandhi government mobilised on the Pakistan border. The official position was that army was conducting war exercises, Operation Brasstacks, but Gandhi had also taken to issuing aggressive statements.

Of the four major states that had polls in 1987, the Congress lost in West Bengal, Kerala and Haryana, and won an ignominious victory in Jammu & Kashmir that was blamed on large-scale rigging. It eventually lost power in the national elections in 1989.

Similarly, the BJP won several key states in 2003, a year after Operation Parakram and the Gujarat riots. However, it lost power at the Centre by 2004.

The BJP even went into overdrive, questioning the Congress' 'weak kneed' handling of national security issues in the wake of the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, but people brought back the Congress in Delhi and Rajasthan in the polling that took place a couple of days later.

Archis Mohan and Sahil Makkar