A debate has two sides

Suhas Palshikar

After the first phase of campaigning, a puzzle looms. While most surveys suggest that the BJP has an edge, the campaign rhetoric of the BJP suggests that it is on edge. A party riding on the popularity of its leader would have been expected to be confident, if not gracious. Given his popularity and penchant for going down in history, Narendra Modi had an excellent opportunity to steer the campaign into a debate on development. Even if he wanted to take advantage of Pulwama, he could still engage in a serious debate over what constitutes security and what needs to be done.
At least the first round of campaigning indicates that this is not the case. The idea of security is employed only to whip up the BJP’s traditional ideological anxieties — on nationalism and Hindutva. And this is being done in ways unbecoming of a truly popular leader — or it is betraying the limits of his popularity.
The campaign opened with almost trickery — the prime minister’s address to the nation on the achievement of the DRDO. Subsequently, a chief minister described India’s armed forces as Modi’s sena. The PM began his attack on the Congress by talking of constituencies where the “majority is in minority”. As the campaign for the first phase was set to conclude, he chose to violate the exhortation of the Election Commission by asking for votes in the name of the martyrs of Pulwama and the brave soldiers who participated in the air strikes. If these are not signs of nervousness, then the definition of confidence needs a revision.
All this shows the so-called electoral smartness of the ruling party and its willingness to bypass rules and institutions. These virtues of the current establishment do not need fresh advertisement. But why would the BJP want to display these in the very first round of campaigning when it appears that it has probably overcome the adverse public sentiment setting in until a few months ago?
Perhaps the answer is in the trends shown in the surveys. Overall, it seems that the BJP on its own is unlikely to reach its 2014 performance. While the media has rightly publicised that the NDA will probably be in a position to form the next government if the present trends continue, what seems to have slipped attention is the fact that in spite of the extraordinary use of media and in spite of the constant projection of the PM, the BJP may fall fairly short of a clear majority. So, desperate attempts to further ignite nationalist fervour become necessary for the BJP.
The second reason emerging from the surveys that may explain the puzzle is even more serious for the BJP. Pulwama and Balakot appear to be bailing out the party for the time being — and particularly in the north and west of the country. But the Lok Sabha election is a long drawn affair and as time passes by, the proximate emotive value of Pulwama and Balakot can diminish.
If that were to happen, the BJP would be exposed to the other realities that the surveys point to: Social discord, charges of cronyism and, above all, the simple material facts of life. It is quite possible that issues related to the economy may resurface in the campaign. Therefore, there seems to be a systematic effort to keep the security kettle burning. End February, the Balakot strike took place and for the next couple of weeks the atmosphere was filled with how the government has shown determination in retaliating against the terrorists. That drowned out any sensible discussion about why Pulwama happened in the first place. Afraid that Modi would draw advantage from any security-related discussion and would turn any questioning into “anti-national acts”, the Opposition shied away from a systematic critique of the current government’s security lapses.
Then, end March, the announcement about India’s anti-satellite capability came, rekindling the hyphenated relationship between nationalism and security. As the first round of campaigning came to a close, the PM openly invoked Pulwama and Balakot to steer the debate to that same sensibility which appears to have captured voters’ imagination on a large scale — a hazy concern about security and a more concrete search for false nationalism.
Over the past couple of weeks, the BJP has shown how it will weave issues of nationalism, security, and religious identity by presenting Modi as an embodiment of all three. In contrast, what has been the response of the Opposition? The BJP’s many regional speed-breakers, cocooned as they are in their states, are often oblivious to these issues.
For them, issues like security and nationalism don’t exist. When state parties cry hoarse that the BJP need not tell them what patriotism is, they are both right and wrong. They are right because surely patriotism is not the monopoly of the BJP. Yet, they are wrong, because they have nothing to offer in terms of “true” nationalism, they have no imagination of a responsible federalism, nor do they bother to develop any security policy. In fact, their ill-preparation on this front allows the BJP to go to the states and talk about security.
While the Congress did say that it has an expert group advising it on security policy, the party has failed to come out with anything that can engage the BJP in this regard. And it is not only about security; for the past four years, the BJP has given clear indications of its overemphasis on nationalism and the meaning it attaches to it. But the Congress, through its manifesto, has only made academic references to a possible robust and democratic nationalism, instead of practising and popularising it.
From Modi’s remarks about Rahul Gandhi running away from the “majority” and from Yogi Adityanath’s remark, “hamare liye Bajrang Bali paryapt hai (for us, Bajrang Bali is enough)” it is quite clear where the “nationalism” debate is headed. In this openly communal discourse, security is only a fig leaf. The coming rounds of the campaign are bound to witness the re-deployment of the majority motif.
The Opposition is left with two options.
They would need to take on the BJP on the security question and start asking why this government failed to ensure the nation’s security. Secondly, the Opposition could begin asking questions more aggressively about the economic hardships citizens face.
The “puzzle” mentioned at the beginning portends closure of debate. Only a concerted strategy can bring a semblance of debate into this campaign. Otherwise, whoever wins or loses, democracy will be the sure loser in this election.