India: Use of National Security on Electoral Sentiments

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by Adrij Chakraborty 22 July 2019

  1. Politics with Policy

As India steps into the second term of governance by the (Bharatiya Janata Party led) National Democratic Alliance, I attempt to analyse what caused the mammoth upsurge of votes in its favour. Amidst other significant reasons behind the ruling party’s landslide victory, there is a small but significant cause championed by the Prime Minister that I believe might have had a considerable role herein – national security.

Statements of terror-combat during the regime of the NDA that began in 2014 found primacy with the electorate, unhinged by the growing real threats from the two neighbouring military borders of Pakistan and China. This phrase might sound disturbing, but the Indian Prime Minister intimately understands the global appeal of terrorism. He realises anti-terror combat raises his stature in the international community, and he wants the world to see him do it. While I do not turn a blind eye towards the human rights excesses owing to terrorist activities, I restrain my enthusiasm in celebrating the Prime Minister’s fervour in his own model of national security concerns.

The Prime Minister’s take on national security has been an amazing mixture of subdued points of notice with obtrusive rhetoric, overarching his entire duration of leadership. One might often be tempted to overlook the role played by this subject in the NDA-1 tenure majorly owing to its unembellished façade. But it contrastingly was the leitmotif in the elections – binding together a diverse cohort of voters with the string of nationalistic pride and sense of security against all odds. Is this something the Prime Minister has always believed in, or was it a marketing gimmick to play on the diverging electoral opinions and bring them in confluence? I believe, it is an amalgamation of both.

In accordance with the policies perpetually upheld by the nationalist party, the issue of national security has found itself amidst a hullabaloo of appropriations and misrepresentation. It surprises me how the Prime Minister has not only collated variant administrative affairs into a commodity that is national security, but has also brazenly mined for votes on such bases. Riding on promises to abrogate Article 370 and annul Article 35A on Kashmir, the NDA-1 had arrantly encashed the Pulwama and the Uri attacks[i] to buy sentiments. Had they been as concerned as they appear, why the BJP manifesto for the 2019 elections failed to address dimensions such as data, financial and cyber security escapes me.

The matter of national security has not been abruptly put up with the right-wing Hindu nationalist party just for their electoral gain. The politics here is far more deep set, with security issues being cited as a policy failure[ii] for the preceding alliance (the United Progressive Alliance) since early 2014[iii]. In reality however, the UPA in no way was less concerned about national security than the NDA is. It was just that there was little brouhaha over the multiple incidences[iv] of pre-emptive actions that were made.  In the UPA tenure, national security was handled with utmost efficiency (with allocations for the defence sector increasing annually). Insulated from an obsession to galvanize the mass with populist indoctrination, India’s security concerns in the UPA era were handled with either coups de main or détentes.

The difference in policymaking lies in the projection of the concerned country. The NDA-1 regime focussed more on furthering the right-wing agenda of reflecting a muscular India than modernising its ageing fleet.

In the past, public discussions on national security did not have the noise that it has now. Neither politicians marketed on it, nor the media controlled public sentiments on war. This was in part possible because the idea of national security was stealthily framed, analysed and implemented. The NDA’s policy thrust appears to be more on public announcement and pompous debates. That security must be strengthened through covert and rapid action[v] rather than dialogues, based on actual capability instead of faux slogans, fail to reverberate through NDA’s political community. NDA loyalists call this the “democratisation” of the policy discourse – a strategy shift that has led the country away from Delphian defence into the market of advertisements.

While conservatives justify politicisation of national security by saying that complainers are in reality failures of security maintenance, thinkers argue that too much discussions on the issue tends to disturb internal coherence in the defence sector. Nevertheless, the government’s robust articulation is a ploy of outreach into important constituencies, an opportunity to enhance political capital.

The strategies have been made to enable the BJP contest the election in its comfort space, without even so much as a contest with real issues that were supposed to be the UPA’s nails on the NDA. The opposition could not effectively drive the centre of debate on central themes[vi] like the manufacturing sector plummet or farmer distress, and the fact that the unemployment rate is at an all-time high since the 1970s.

2. Mass Mobilization against Threats

India has continually faced the international community’s unequivocal supplication to de-escalate tensions with Pakistan whenever there have been provocations. Regardless of the consequence of the retaliatory arrangements it opts, New Delhi has swiftly moved from discretion in defence policies to publicizing its instruments of force – the narrative of India in its fight with state-sponsored terror has always found its presence amidst the commons in the country, with Indian military action and security concerns inevitably making their way into electoral discourses. Yet this pattern is not exclusive to just India – nations governed by conservative populist parties, like Trump’s USA and Bolsonaro’s Brazil, have neurotically pointed to national security being increasingly paralyzed by dysfunction. Countries have waged wars and annexed lands citing security threats, owing simply to the whims of the heads of state and their ideological compulsions. The use of security concerns in political deliberations in India is inherently the Prime Minister’s decision, and one of the reasons for the strategic shift.

National security as a foreign policy, especially in democracies, must exist in popular discourse. But it is up to the voter to understand the fine-line distinguishing a foreign policy description and a political party’s approbated version of it. While the former is a matter of policymaking transparency with the voter and the government, the latter is a marketing tool for propaganda. The BJP is and has been a frontrunner in using national security to measure nationalistic values of the populace – one of the many points of contention that compels me to conclude that a debate on this is not only necessary but is inevitable. Unfortunately, the NDA’s articulation of a national security and foreign policy framework can be seen to be more in tandem with the aspirations of the majority. I can take my chances in guessing that this favoured the alliance into an undisputed victory. What I cannot point out exactly is how well have the national security credentials played into the Indian electorate’s re-election of the BJP. It cannot be however disregarded that the Indian voter is discussing it profoundly, alongside a compulsive government and a reluctant opposition.


[i] The Statesman (2019) ‘PM Modi asks for votes over Balakot strike, slain Pulwama attack jawans; EC seeks report’, New Delhi, 10 April. Available at: https://www.thestatesman.com/elections-2019/pm-modi-asks-votes-balakot-strike-slain-pulwama-attack-jawans-ec-seeks-report-1502744354.html [Accessed: 29 June 2019]

[ii] Press Trust of India (2019) ‘National security suffered due to criminal negligence of UPA: PM Modi’, Business Standard, 25 February. Available at: https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/pm-attacks-congress-on-rafale-says-national-security-suffered-due-to-criminal-negligence-of-upa-119022501130_1.html [Accessed: 17 June 2019]

[iii]Athale, A. (2014) ‘How ‘soft’ UPA has compromised our national security’, Firstpost, 19 March. Available at: https://www.firstpost.com/india/how-soft-upa-has-compromised-our-national-security-1440431.html [Accessed: 08 June 2019]

[iv] Nettikkara, S. (2019) ‘India election 2019: Has security improved under Modi?’, BBC, 01 April. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-47482797 [Accessed: 29th May 2019]

[v] Campose, P. (2016) India’s National Security Strategy: Imperative of Integrating Defence Policy. Centre for Land Warfare Studies Journal. 15–32. Available at: https://www.claws.in/images/journals_doc/52385527_1117566064_PhilipCampose [Accessed: 2 July 2019]

[vi] India Today (2019) ‘PM Modi using national security to divert attention from real issues: Rahul Gandhi to India Today’, New Delhi, 02 May. Available at: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/pm-modi-using-national-security-to-divert-attention-from-real-issues-rahul-gandhi-to-india-today-1515552-2019-05-02 [Accessed: 01 June 2019]

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