Mumbai: Even as the Election Commission studies his remarks on Balakot for alleged violation of the election code of conduct, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday invoked both Balakot and Pakistan at his campaign rallies in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Addressing a rally at Patan in Gujarat, Modi said, citing a unidentified senior American official, that “Modi was ready with 12 missiles" if Pakistan did not return wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman to India in the post-Balakot confrontation.
Later, at Chittorgarh and Barmer in Rajasthan, Modi again invoked Pakistan by bringing up the air strikes in Balakot, saying “we killed terrorists in their home" and telling voters that they would be voting against terrorism when they pressed the lotus button. In Rajasthan, Modi said India was not maintaining its nuclear arsenal “for Diwali".
This was clearly not the first time Modi deployed Pakistan and a hard-line policy against the neighbouring country in an election campaign. During the 2012 Gujarat assembly election campaign, Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, had alleged that then prime minister Manmohan Singh was close to striking a deal with Pakistan to give Sir Creek in Gujarat to the neighbouring country, an allegation denied by the then Prime Minister’s Office. Later, during the 2017 Gujarat election campaign when Modi was the prime minister and the Congress had mounted a spirited challenge to the incumbent BJP, Modi accused Manmohan Singh and Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar of holding a “secret meeting" with current and former Pakistan officials and also alleged that Pakistan was trying to interfere with Gujarat polls. This charge was also denied by the Congress party. But the Pakistan gamble seemed to have paid off for the BJP as it retained Gujarat after a close contest in which the Congress improved over its 2012 performance and Modi’s powerful campaign turned out to be the key differentiator.
While national security and a hard-line policy on terrorism have been part of the BJP’s 2019 election campaign, Modi invoking Pakistan in Gujarat and Rajasthan should be seen in the context of the high stakes for both the BJP and Congress in these two states. Besides Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat are among the states where the BJP is locked in a straight electoral duel with the Congress, unlike some states where there are significant third and fourth players. Also, Modi’s Pakistan line has to be seen against the backdrop of the recent electoral history of these states. Though it retained Gujarat in 2017 against a resurgent Congress, it was a narrow victory for the BJP which won 99 seats against the Congress’ 77 in the 182-member Gujarat assembly. In November 2018, the BJP lost Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan to the Congress. Together, these states account for 91 Lok Sabha seats and the BJP had won a stunning 88 of these in the 2014 elections. In fact, the BJP won all 26 and 25 seats in Gujarat and Rajasthan respectively and lost only two and one seats in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, respectively.
“It would be difficult to repeat this performance in 2019 but we don’t want to the Congress to capitalise on its gains in the assembly elections. The hard-line campaign, especially involving Pakistan, works in these states better than elsewhere not only because of their geographical proximity to Pakistan but also for the threat of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism these states face. It is precisely for this reason that national security and zero tolerance for terrorism is the central part of Modi ji’s campaign in Maharashtra too because Mumbai has a terrible history of terror attacks," said a central BJP leader who did not want to be named.
He added that the prime minister was very likely to continue using this line during the course of his campaign in Maharashtra and Rajasthan. All 26 seats in Gujarat go to polls on 23 April along with 14 in Maharashtra. Rajasthan votes on 29 April along with the remaining 17 seats in Maharashtra, and later on 6 May.
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