The BJP, and the government it leads at the Centre, fiercely deny that they are politicising the February 26 Balakot strike and, ahead of a crucial Lok Sabha election, putting it to electoral use. Yet, to any question raised by the Opposition on the operation carried out in the wake of the Jaish attack at Pulwama, the answer of top leaders of party and government is: Are you doubting our armed forces? Followed by the not-unstated insinuation: By asking a question on a matter of national security, you are making Pakistan happy. In this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah have set the tone. In a rally in Patna, PM Modi accused the Opposition of demoralising the armed forces. And Shah claimed in Ahmedabad, breaking a heavy official silence — and even as the Indian Air Force chief says: “We don’t count human casualties, we count what targets have been hit, or not hit” — that “more than 250” terrorists were killed in Balakot.
There are two options before the Opposition. One, it can evade and skirt the issue of national security altogether, ahead of what may well turn out to be a national security election. And play dead, as it has done so often in the past on fundamental issues. On cow vigilantism, the Congress, for instance, has been so spooked by the fear of Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP, that it has either retreated or caved in to the BJP’s terms. It is a law and order issue, not a hate crime against Muslims, says the Congress, even as its newly-elected governments in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh unleash their own showy schemes and programmes in the name of the cow. Or two, the Opposition, including the Congress, could call out the BJP — full throatedly, putting the party leaderships’ weight behind it, not as sporadic, testing-the-waters interventions by mid-level leaders — on its attempt to use the figure of the soldier as a shield to stanch criticism. Parties of the Opposition could find the language to talk back to government on national security, to point out that while the nation is united in support of the soldier in times of conflict, the government that frames the policy cannot claim any exemption from disagreement or difference. In India, the armed forces are, have always been, subject to civilian control. That power equation squarely casts on the political executive the responsibility to take the questions and the duty to give the answers on national security.
The Opposition’s response to the BJP’s framing of the national security issue in this moment will be consequential. In the near term, it will determine whether or not there will be a genuine debate ahead of the upcoming polls, or only patriotism tests. Beyond the polls, it will determine whether or not there are any learnings for the future from this fraught February.