The political uses of conflict

What the events from the 14th of February until now – I am referring to the Pulwama terror attack and the ensuing events – tell us in no ambiguous terms is that conflict have major political uses. Well, we know that already and hence it’s hardly surprising. But what we must sit up and take notice of is the deft manner in which political uses are derived from conflict, and the clever strategies that go with it.

Look at it this way: from a strategic point of view, New Delhi’s anti-terror strike inside Pakistan did not lead to any material gains. India attacked Balakot in the KPK province of Pakistan, but the available evidence shows, so far, that the strike aircraft of the Indian Air Force did not hit any camps of the terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed nor were any terrorists killed in the operation. The retaliatory strike by the Pakistan Air Force ended in one Indian strike aircraft getting shot down and the pilot being captured by the Pakistani side. Indian claims about a Pakistani F16 aircraft being downed has little evidence to support it. The captured pilot was eventually returned by the Pakistani side. Finally, if the reports of the shooting down of an Indian Air Force Mi17V5 helicopter by friendly fire are true, the balance sheet is badly skewed against New Delhi, militarily speaking. In other words, from a purely material and military point of view, New Delhi military mission against Pakistan post-Pulwama not only failed to achieve anything but in fact was a disaster.


And yet the BJP top brass’ ability to spin facts and create positive messages out of thin air seems to have won over against the objectivity of sheer facts. The BJP claims that Modi is the most decisive leader India has had in a long time because he finally acted against Pakistan-sponsored terror decisively and fearlessly. And this seems to have stuck a chord with the general public.

The double-edged sword of securitized politics

The most striking aspect of the post-Pulwama national security discourse is the ability of the ruling dispensation in New Delhi to appropriate its political uses. The party left no stones unturned to publicize the attack on Balakot and seek votes in turn. The Prime Minister even went on to address a rally with the pictures of the slain Jawans in the backdrop. And yet, even the mildest criticism from the opposition about the manner the operation was conducted or whether it led to anything substantive at all draws immediate ire from the ruling party– anyone asking questions are helping the Pakistani narrative, they say loud and clear.

So in a sense then, the opposition parties find themselves in a major dilemma. If they support the post-Pulwama military action, then they would fall into the BJP’s well-laid trap and end up supporting it with the benefits going to the BJP. Why would people vote for a party that supports the government’s military action when they can vote the government that carried out the operation?

If you don’t support the military operation,  you become suspect in the eyes of the public and might run the risk of attracting their anger for not standing by the government (and the nation) in times of a ‘national crisis’. Their faith in you gets further reduced. And staying mum about such an important development is hardly an option! So if you support the government you are doomed, if you don’t you are still doomed! It’s a zero-sum predicament. Think about it for a second: isn’t this a very potent and clever political strategy? Not that we didn’t know it earlier, even the opposition parties did, but they still have no viable way of getting out of this dilemma unhurt.

The magic wand of national security

That’s not all. Grandstanding claims and narratives on national security are powerful and potent in several more ways during times of elections. In one swoop, for instance, anyone asking legitimate questions about national security today has been pushed to the wall. No more questions, no more discussions – everyone has to fall in line. As a matter of fact, take any index of national security and you will see it for yourself that India’s national security is worse than what it was five years ago, and yet asking those critical questions as to why we are more insecure today or talking about the government’s national security failures are unacceptable today.

One of the reasons why the BJP is able to have a field day with its national security claims so close to the elections is because the opposition parties sorely lack a coherent, robust and visionary national security narrative. So when people see, or are repeatedly told, that there is no alternative, they start believing that there is no alternative. At the end the day, it is important to realise that national security sells in India and there is no better time to sell it than at the time of war and conflict. And the BJP is doing a great job of that.

I will end this column with a thought that I paraphrased from the Western historian Charles Tilly’s article “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”, a scholar whose writings I make it a point to teach every batch of my MA students at JNU: “If a racketeer is someone who creates a threat and then charges for shielding you against it, then it could be said that some governments are in the business of running protection rackets.”

(Happymon Jacob teaches at JNU and is the author of “Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India–Pakistan Escalation Dynamics”, Oxford University Press, 2019).

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