Opinion | The electoral alchemy of potential war

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Philosophers such as Bernard Williams have often talked of the idea of “moral luck”. It is the availability of good news when least is expected; a windfall of good fortune out of the blue. Moral luck rarely follows the logic of reason and ethics. In fact, sometimes it disrupts justice and prolongs the career or reign of people who do not deserve it.

Such a situation happened in Indian politics when a Kashmiri terrorist bombed a CRPF contingent at Pulwama, in Kashmir, on February 14. The outrage that followed had a political fallout. The Narendra Modi-led central government was losing its political tarnish. His plea for development even left the middleclass indifferent. The recent assembly polls in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh revealed that the Congress rather than being a somnolent Opposition was not only running neck-to-neck, but also out distancing the BJP. Opposition politics was looking believable and different levels of unity were becoming feasible.

The Pulwama attack alters the picture adding a different drama to the election scenario. Modi, like any good actor, immediately changed the script. He became super patriot and statesmen telling the middleclass it was in safe hands. He plans a strike on terrorist camps which is reasonably successful. However, he creates a seamless script between war and politics, where a vote for Modi was a vote for the security of India.

It was Amit Shah who first articulated it commoditising war and anxiety about war into a vote-bank. He brazenly stated Modi was a better assurance of security than the ghatbandhan. The blatant use of the threat of war instrumentally to create a vote-bank made people wonder about the seamless nature of electoral politics.

What Shah stated as a policy bonanza, BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa stated in bazaar terms. On February 28 he announced in Karnataka that the air strike was worth 22 seats. War and peace, violence and democracy get conflated and convertible in a manner which makes Indian politics surreal. The situation becomes worse as the plot is elaborated.

Suddenly security rather than development becomes the BJP’s new bandwagon. Security as a jingoist term allows for certain forms of amnesia. Given that Pakistan is the demonic enemy, India’s brutality in Kashmir is quickly forgotten. The trouble in Kashmir, which had reached boiling point, is now on the backburner. When development lost its electoral magic security became a new political plank, which now demanded that a vote for BJP was now an act of duty.

The change in the quality of the electoral scenario became amazing. First, the BJP for all its aggregate calculations and its feats of psephology knew that this election lacked a sense of magic; of effervescence. The party sensed that mere electoral mathematics of interest groups did not quite provide the alchemy of victory. Worse, Modi had become a messy incarnation of himself. The threat of war, however, transformed him into an immaculate incarnation, a leader who could do no wrong. Security as an ideological platform was assuaging the anxieties of the middleclass in a way development could not. The prospect of war allowed the BJP cadre to play a nationalist tune full of machismo. It was not only music to their ears, it was a tune they could play competently.

The idea and the prospect of war with Pakistan caught the Opposition flatfooted. It made their internal objections look silly while a week ago the Opposition looked formidable. It also succumbed to the logic of national unity, praise the army and enact out its own demonology of Pakistan. An election centring on security has completely amended the rules of the game and the logic of expectations.

There is one last irony one must emphasise. Bollywood has worked overtime to bolster the BJP government’s image. It produced the movie on the first surgical strike after which Modi aspired to be a second Vajpayee.  If Vajapayee was premier during Kargil, Modi had Pulwama. History has been kind to a man who always complained about the unfairness of history.

The pre-emptive strike after Pulwama upstaged the surgical strike of Bollywood showing cinema how politics too utilises the reality of fictions. Maybe in the decades to come this moment will be called with a touch of cynicism, ‘the Pulwama Elections’, a surreal transformation of politics, that political scientists are still grappling with.