The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s imminent success in clinching the nuclear deal had promoted a feel-good factor among the urban middle classes and restored the stock of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But the serial bomb blasts in New Delhi that killed at least 20 people have shaken the confidence of the UPA establishment. These blasts have finally woken up the UPA government out of its stupor on terrorism and it is trying to initiate immediate counter-actions to avoid an electoral backlash that would become inevitable. In my assessment, two factors have forced this realization on the UPA establishment.
The first relates to the onslaught by the media in general and television in particular on the UPA government’s failure to thwart repeated terror strikes in metropolitan cities. The media’s scathing attacks on the home minister, Shivraj Patil, including all the ink and time devoted to his sharp outfits, have hit him hard. While many may argue that the home minister’s clothes aren’t really the issue, in public perception he had begun to symbolize the Congress party’s cavalier attitude so far in dealing with terrorism. The UPA leadership would do well to ease him out of the home ministry in a routine reshuffle. Else, he would remain an effective and easy target for the Opposition.
The second factor relates to the success of the Gujarat police in quickly unravelling the role of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) behind the Ahmedabad blasts that demonstrated that if there is political will, perpetrators of such dastardly acts can be brought to book.
While UPA leaders will point out that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) track record on dealing with terror was no better when it was in power, as several high-profile terror attacks, including the attack on India’s Parliament and the Akshardham temple, happened during that regime, a distinction is in order.
Unlike during the NDA regime, the common man has become a target and victim of terrorism as markets, temples and means of transport frequented by them are under attack by terrorists. The frequency of such attacks is also on the rise as last two months saw the three cities of Bangalore, Ahmedabad and New Delhi come under attack.
The BJP, which was unable to get its act together on the issue of terrorism, as this column noted on 11 August, appears to have finalized its strategy and decided to project Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as its mascot when it comes to how the party will fight terrorists.
The NDA’s prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani, has deliberately brought Modi onto the centre stage to lead the BJP’s charge on terror. Advani’s brief to Modi for the Lok Sabha campaign is simple: go after the UPA government for its soft handling of terror. That Modi has begun to take his role seriously is evident from his repeated attacks on the Central government at the BJP’s national executive meet in Bangalore earlier this month and, later, in several public meetings.
On this score, Modi, despite his anti-Muslim baggage, will become a formidable opponent and the UPA leadership fears that he has the potential to pulverize it on the terrorism plank. In Gujarat’s assembly polls last year, he cleverly raised the delay in execution of Afzal Guru for the Parliament attack as a major election issue, which also contributed to the Congress party’s defeat. The UPA now has to worry about a repeat of the Gujarat phenomenon on a national scale.
The emergence of terrorism as a salient electoral issue comes at an inopportune time for the UPA, as it adds to what has been pent-up discontent among the urban electorate over rising prices, rising interest rates, falling stock markets and job cuts due to a sluggish economy, much of it not something that the UPA can fix, given the global economic turmoil that will continue to hurt India’s economy through the rest of this year and beyond.
The bomb blasts have the ability to cast a long shadow over the UPA’s imminent success in clinching a nuclear deal with the US, thus denting the Congress party’s hopes of using that deal as the reason why the party ought to come back to power ,come election time.
Having finally taken inflation seriously, albeit belatedly, the UPA seems to have understood that grappling with terrorism quickly is a critical issue. If actions follow rhetoric and the government is able to avert more, large-scale terror strikes in the months ahead, at least urban voters will surely feel safer. And the re-election prospects of the UPA would become a bit more safer than they are now.
Also Read GVL Narasimha Rao’s earlier columns
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org