The past three general elections of 2014, 2009 and 2004 were centred on the internal dynamics, national health and expected fate of the nation. The 2004 election was posited as a virtual referendum for the presumed economic “feel good factor” of the BJP-led NDA government that was encapsulated in its failed “India Shining” campaign. By 2009, the central electoral theme had evolved to the resilience of the incumbent Congress-led UPA government, with its campaign focused on rural India and on the underprivileged sections of society. The 2014 election was a brilliantly conducted campaign by the victorious NDA coalition against the perceived inertia, corruption and indecisiveness of the UPA government till then. While the security situation remained tense during that period of 15 years — with the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, the Northeast’s insurgencies, the Maoist violence, etc, and with the continuing impasse in the state of Jammu and Kashmir — “Pakistan” had still not arrived as the predominant theme that could galvanise the masses towards electoral gratification, as it was always the more daily-felt and impacted socio-economic urgencies of the mainstream that dominated all political battles.
What started as the early green shoots of the uber-nationalistic discourse in the 2014 general election has over the past five years assumed a gargantuan and all-pervasive resonance and justification, with “Pakistan” at the epicentre of the entire narrative. The juxtaposition of Pakistan as the principal supporter of the terror industry is rightfully aimed at Islamabad’s continued and incorrigible dalliances with terror, in both, erstwhile Pakistan, as also in the so-called “Naya Pakistan”. However, beyond the deserved condemnation for its nefarious and historical terror support, “Pakistan” has been contextualised creatively to retrofit into virtually every possible argument concerning administrative decisions or indecisions. From arguing for or against issues like demonetisation, “award-wapsi” to questioning civil liberties — the Damocles’ sword of a potential threat to “banish to Pakistan” has become a ready riposte. Even the main Opposition party’s manifesto has been described as a “planning document of Pakistan’s conspiracy”. The parallel linking of the “morale of our forces”, along with the metaphor of “Pakistan”, further nails the muscularity, efficacy and stridency of the political pitch that naturally evokes passionate traction from the electorate, when conjoined.
So, in the midst and throes of the ensuing electoral frenzy and counter-accusations, “Pakistan” has emerged as a powerful and pithy symbol of political galvanisation that is beyond questioning. While our bloody and unsettled history with Pakistan is both a reality and a threat in terms of our future security concerns and geopolitical and geostrategic implications, the expanded societal context of “Pakistan” as the preferred destination, idyll or “idea” for all those who disagree with partisan thought, however unrelated to Pakistan, is a great disservice to the democratic traditions, liberality and intellect of debate in India. This simplistic and instinctive threat has evolved to a level where “Pakistan” is auto-evoked at the drop of a hat, in case of any contrarian opinion to the ruling side of the day. The threats are particularly severe for any dissenting voices from the minority community as co-religiosity becomes the insidious rationale for accusations — sadly ignoring the fact that the proud Indian Muslim had vehemently rejected the flawed idea of “Pakistan” in 1947 and chose to repose their faith in the “idea”, profundity and secularity of Mahatma Gandhi’s India.
“Pakistan” also has immense distractive value, as indeed unifying abilities as the sentiments against the said country justifiably cut across the length and breadth of the country, especially after the Pulwama attack and the Balakot airstrikes. Electoral speeches across the country are not focusing on the enormity of the debilitating agrarian crisis, nor the crippling aftereffects of the job losses, nor about the dangerously escalating polarisation levels in society — it is only referencing the constituents towards Pakistan, along with all its implied and extended allusions. In the face of its obviously emotive powers, the Opposition is falling short of connecting with constituents with its proposed agenda of socio-economic transformation, without the crucial hook of an “enemy”. Postured revisionism is a powerful tactic during the electoral heat and any talk like reforms by repealing the sedition law or Afspa — the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, in force in J&K and parts of the Northeast — is easy fodder for right-wing strategists who can position the same as an abject “surrender”, never mind the fact that Afspa has actually been withdrawn from multiple states in the Northeast by the present government itself. The shallowest instincts of political honesty are at play during the run-up to the elections — herein the truth is usually the first casualty, and anything goes, as long as the overall narrative is able to seduce the required number of votes towards a partisan purpose.
Pakistan was, is and will, unfortunately, remain an “enemy” state in all likelihood that needs to be accounted into our sovereign calculus — however the proportion, tenor and context that we attribute to it will reflect our own political maturity, sobriety and morality. The toxic “winner-takes-it-all” approach may warrant a hate campaign for electoral purposes, but it also diminishes the national profundity and constitutionality that has been maintained from the Nehruvian times till the era of Inder Kumar Gujral, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh, where the “balance”, irrespective of electoral temptations, was never lost. Former Prime Minister Vajpayee had famously written in the visitors’ book at the Minar-e-Pakistan: “A strong and stable Pakistan is in India’s best interest”, along with wishing it the best. Vajpayee’s visionary statesmanship and balanced conduct had elevated the high moral ground for India, as suggested in the reciprocal accolade from a former Pakistani minister, Mushahid Hussain, who noted: “While other Indian leaders have talked of peace, but only Vajpayee had the vision, will and moral courage to ‘walk the talk’; he realised that after the 1998 nuclear tests both Pakistan and India needed a fresh start based on new ground realities, including paying homage at the Minar-e-Pakistan”.
Decency, decorum and dignity were natural instincts for someone like Vajpayee, who incidentally was also behind the success of the Kargil War and the 1998 nuclear tests, without any unnecessary sabre-rattling or name-calling that lowers the discourse.