Congress, AAP Strategy On Surgical Strikes Is Backfiring

A two-wheeler manufacturer recently released an advertisement showing a young man using his bike to help a soldier catch a bus. Once the soldier is on board, each passenger salutes him. The advertisement would have done well at any time in independent India's 70 year life. But its release last week has a touch of now. Corporates (try to) keep an unwavering finger on the public pulse. So we can safely say that the campaign managers for the company had assessed that after the Uri attack and the surgical strikes, the mood of the buying public was ripe for this sort of imagery.

Journalists are not the best judges of public sentiment - they have too many opinions or influenced judgements. Politicians are way better. Like corporates have deep stakes in the economy, politicians have crucial stakes in the demography.

Which is why what Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal did on Monday was waiting to happen. AAP, like no other political party in India, was delivered and born on TV cameras, with "gun mic" holding reporters like stethoscoped doctors. AAP chief Kejriwal lives (saying "for tv" would be a rude exaggeration) with cameras allowed access to follow him everywhere. Even so, he issued a recorded statement on the surgical strikes. It was a balancing act, which could have been severely undone by a press conference with a question and answer session. The AAP boss praised Modi and then asked the government to provide proof of the strikes as Pakistan took a bus load of foreign journalists to villages on its side of the Line of Control to claim everything was normal.

Kejriwal's was not a knee-jerk reaction. He had been waiting to do it right since that fateful day when the Director General of Military Operations, Lt General Ranbir Singh announced "based on very specific and credible information which we received yesterday that some terrorist teams had positioned itself along the Line of Control, the army carried out surgical strikes last night at these launch pads."

The strikes - and their announcement - lifted the threshold of India's response to Pakistani provocations and added "inches" to PM Modi's and his government's political standing. The backing the government received was a sign that political opponents knew that Modi had reduced the room for dissent as a maneuver. So while they were numbed, they remained aware that Modi had taken a big lead and  a challenge was needed. Kejriwal was first off the block. The Congress followed with predictable players like Digvijaya Singh doing their equally predictable part.
Ex Shiv Sainik-turned-Congressman Sanjay Nirupam took the challenge to a new low with this tweet: 
The JDU from Bihar echoed a similar "provide proof to silence Pakistan" view.

But what is exposed is that the PM's opponents were jittery and appear to have jumped the gun. The BJP was tacitly milking the strategic strike, though I agree there was no mass chest thumping. In fact, sources tell me that the day after the Cabinet Committee on Security met, a senior minister made a statement on the strikes and the PM was quick to ask him why. But parties can always be counted on to find a way to exploit a situation and the BJP cadres were on a roll. Hoardings and posters showcasing Modi as the decisive victor are just obvious examples.  The strike was like a crowning moment on the agenda of nationalism that the BJP has been constructing. Remember this August 15 with every BJP leader - mantri, MP, MLA - all leading tiranga ( tricolour ) yatras in their respective constituencies?

In the past, war has been used, inadvisably, as an instrument to win an argument for votes in India. Mrs Gandhi did it successfully post 1971- it saw leaders like the late Dev Kant Baruah deliver the famous benchmark in sycophancy quote: "India is Indira and Indira is India."

One of the reasons for Kejriwal and then the Congress to act as they did is the concern about the BJP taking the lead in Punjab where every household consists of ex-servicemen, serving in army men and men aspiring to join the army, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The opposition fears that the BJP will use the surgical strike as a poll weapon.

BJP sources say the party was waiting and ready for dissenting voices to rise. BJP President Amit Shah quickly deployed Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to handle a press conference where he said those demanding proof are doubting the army and are popular in Pakistan.

The tweak was interesting. What was a government vs opposition issue was turned by the BJP deftly into the opposition vs the army. The impact was instant. AAP workers marched in Delhi to the Pakistani embassy to protest. Its leaders courted news cameras, reading out the fine print of their boss' statement. The Congress sought answers from the government, but its spokespersons distanced the party from the comment of Sanjay Nirupam.

Despite the clamour, the government remains committed to not releasing evidence of the strikes. The PM saw the "evidence" right after the action. He has ordered his ministers not to indulge in chest-beating or speaking out of turn, knowing this may endanger the fragile political unity over security issues. Direct credit-grabbing by BJP men will compel the opposition to undermine the stikes. The government knows more terrorists at launch pads across the Line of Control and this side of the border are ready and a strike on Indian soil will reduce the sheen of the strikes.

The opposition must keep attempting to rein in the BJP from projecting the strikes as an achievement. It is justifiable political strategy, but it comes with a hazard warning: by raising political din over the strike the opposition is taking a huge political risk. I wonder what if the BJP waits for the political crescendo to rise and then closer to elections in UP, Punjab and Uttarakhand releases the evidence and spins a political poll campaign on it. That will be one big political moment as India voters have seen terror victims on Indian soil but not signs of an audacious Indian retaliation. The opposition will then find it difficult to sell the argument why was the proof being released and why were strikes being made a political issue. 

(Rahul Shrivastava is Senior Editor, Political Affairs NDTV 24x7)

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