“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”
In a few days, a month-long election cycle in India will come to an end, and the results of a mammoth electoral exercise will be announced. Indeed, with over 900 million registered voters (more than the combined population of the United States and the European Union) electing 543 Members of Parliament from among 8,049 candidates representing 677 political parties, this is the world’s biggest democratic undertaking.
As in previous elections, issues around jobs, growth, and development are unsurprising themes of this campaign. However, interestingly, national security and foreign policy have also emerged as key issues, especially in regards to Pakistan. The saliency of national security as an issue at the polls increased significantly in February 2019 after a suicide car bombing by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad killed 40 Indian security personnel. This was the deadliest terror attack on India’s state security in over 30 years and occurred at a time when incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s net approval rating stood at only 32%. The subsequent rise in tensions with Pakistan has proved to be a great opportunity for Modi, who is the face of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to set himself apart from his political adversaries on this issue. The fact that Pakistan is a Muslim-majority nation also allowed the BJP to further fan the flames of Hindu nationalistic sentiment to bolster its own image. By early March 2019, Modi’s approval rating had risen to 62%.
A comparison of Prime Minister Modi’s speeches from the 2014 and 2019 elections found minimal usage of words like ‘Pakistan’ and ‘terrorism’ in 2014. However, this changed significantly in 2019 when, after the attack, these words were used frequently by virtually all BJP leaders, including Modi himself. National security and the perceived threat of war is a tremendous electoral tool in India for three reasons. First, it unites voters across class, regional, and religious lines in seeking a ‘strong’ and ‘decisive’ leader. Second, to a large extent, it has acted as a distraction from BJP’s mostly unremarkable performance between 2014 and 2019 on key indicators, such as employment. Finally, national security as an election issue bears great strategic value rhetorically, as it is hard for opposition parties to come up with an effective counter-narrative.
However, the media’s role in making the conflict with Pakistan a central election issue and fuelling public panic and anger can also not be ignored. The media has greatly profited from cross-border violence by finding creative ways to attract viewers. At the peak of the crisis, Indian and Pakistani television anchors both dressed in military uniforms as they presented the news; an Indian newscaster even hosted his entire segment while holding a toy gun. As Akash Sriram writes here, articles in print and online media portrayed Modi as the person responsible for brave strategic moves against terrorist outfits. The framing of journalistic content was designed to demonstrate India’s hard power to its audience. This, together with the fact that Indian audiences are typically exposed only to Indian media reports and are generally isolated from international media narratives, has certainly impacted public opinion, and, eventually, the elections.
So, was national security a winning platform for the BJP? In short, it seems very likely yes. With all seven phases of voting over, four major exit polls are predicting big wins for the BJP and its National Democratic Alliance (a coalition of right-leaning political parties in India). India is facing serious challenges in the farming sector, unemployment is on the rise, and the economy has plateaued and may even be headed for a recession. At a time when economic policies and job creation should have been at the center stage of our national conversation, war, religion, and national security have instead dominated. Ironically, Jaish-e-Mohammad might soon prove to be BJP’s greatest ally this election.