Elections bring on a manthan (or churn) of governance discourse in a democratic polity. However, Indian political parties still seem stuck in the Pulwama, Balakot and Pakistan time zones. In this context, we need to analyse two intuitive questions. Why do terrorists choose to strike around elections? Do terror attacks have any effect on the voting choices of people?

Pre-election terror attacks do not appear to be random. Rather, they correspond to strategic political objectives such as deterring the participation of voters and candidates in the electoral process, building a radical constituency that draws on rhetoric about the persecution of particular communities, bringing radical political narratives into the mainstream, and, most importantly, bringing about a greater degree of polarization in the electorate.

Many a politician has tried to build a career on “war", “terror attacks", and “martyrs". Such attempts were rarely seen in the pre-1990 politics of India, despite full-fledged wars. Interestingly, neither the wars nor most of the terror attacks during this period occurred around elections. Since 1990, however, India has entered a virtually perpetual electioneering phase, with polls (assembly if not Lok Sabha) taking place round the year. Consequently, all major terrorist attacks have taken place close to one election or another. From 1994 to 2019, as many as 25,280 civilians and 10,276 security force personnel lost their lives to such violence, while 31,892 terrorists got killed. Nonetheless, neither were the funerals of “terror martyrs" politicized nor was demagoguery for electoral dividends taken to the extremes witnessed after Pulwama.

Electoral compulsions are bound to guide the behaviour of political parties, especially in running down opponents. Most of these parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have tried to gain political capital by alleging that their rivals in power are (or were) incompetent to deal with terrorism. How this plays out at the ballot box, though, is not predictable. In parliamentary elections, there was a sharp increase in the BJP’s vote share from 11.4% in 1989 to 25.6% of all votes in 1998. However, the electoral impact of the Kargil War of 1999 on voter preferences was minimal, as the BJP lost just 2% votes in that year’s general elections, and formed the government. The party’s vote share declined to 22% in 2004 and to 18% in 2009, despite its no-concession stance on terrorism. Similarly, the party failed to make gains in the subsequent state elections, despite its attempt to appropriate public anger over a series of pre-poll terrorist strikes in 2001-03, including the attack on Parliament in late 2001.

Surprisingly, the fragile unity of leaders on questions of national security was suspended over terror incidents under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime (2004-2014). Electoral compulsions did not allow our leaders to stand together even for a day after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks of 2008. Despite high levels of public anger, recriminatory media reports and demonstrations, the Congress-led UPA fared relatively well in several assembly polls and the 2009 general elections. This trend shows that for all the fury of the Indian electorate, it has rarely shifted its votes on the basis of terrorism as an issue.

In the last four-and-a-half years under the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), India had 61 terror attacks in 2015, 82 in 2016, 75 in 2017, 88 in 2018, and 14 in 2019 so far, including the Uri, Pathankot and Pulwama instances. These incidents impacted the BJP adversely in subsequent assembly polls. If we compare the BJP’s vote share in the 2014 parliamentary polls with that in subsequent state elections, we find three clear patterns. First, the party’s vote share has declined consistently except in the northeast; also, what began as a slight decline became drastic as this year’s Lok Sabha elections neared. Second, despite its falling vote share, the BJP won the majority of assembly seats where the Congress was incumbent. Similarly, the Congress improved not only its vote share, but also formed governments in multiple states where the BJP was in power. Third, both these rivals failed to challenge regional parties in their respective states of dominance, except in Uttar Pradesh.

In 2014, the BJP lost 2% and 7% of votes, respectively, in the state elections of Jharkhand and Haryana, while it gained marginally in Maharashtra. Yet, it formed governments in these states to replace the Congress. In the assembly hustings of 2015, the BJP’s vote share not only showed a slide of 14% in Delhi and 8% in Bihar, but it also lost these elections. Both these states were dominated by regional parties. The trend continued in the five assembly elections of 2016, despite a much-vaunted surgical strike against terror camps across the Line of Control in Kashmir. There was a loss of 7% in West Bengal and Assam, and of 2% in Tamil Nadu, with slight gain in Kerala.

In the 2017 state polls of Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the BJP lost 21%, 10%, 5%, 3%, 3% and 9%, respectively. Regardless of the vote-share losses, it gained power in all these states (except Punjab). In 2018, the BJP lost a significant share of votes in many state elections: 16% in Chhattisgarh, 14% in Madhya Pradesh, 12% in Rajasthan, 1% in Telangana and 7% in Karnataka.

Traditional vote banks do not seem to be shrinking, despite the apparent efforts of political parties to influence public sentiment on terrorism in their favour.

Afroz Alam is head of the political science department at Maulana Azad National Urdu University.