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India’s General Election 2019: Modi Bets on National Security

25 Apr 2019
By Dr Ashok Sharma
Incumbent Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hoping his tough stance on national security will secure him victory in the country's general election. Source:

Prime Minister Modi and the BJP are hoping their strong record on national security will deliver them victory in the Indian elections. If the polls are anything to go by, they may well be in with a decent chance.

India’s massive general election is now well underway. The month-long process is taking place in seven phases in order to give the country’s 900 million eligible voters a chance to participate before polls close on 16 May. There is a crowded field of candidates and parties, but the main contest is between two broad coalitions in the Lok Sabha, the country’s lower house. The incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are facing off against Rahul Gandhi and the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Opinion polls suggest the BJP-led NDA will form the government. They also suggest Modi is very likely to take out the top job. One poll put him as most-favoured prime minister on 83.4 percent with Gandhi in second place on 8.3 percent. But unlike the 2014 general election, in which Modi and the NDA rode to victory on the incumbent UPA’s poor performance, this time Modi and the NDA have to defend their record in office.

In the last five years, the Modi government has performed well on a number of fronts. It has reduced government corruption and lifted the rate of economic growth from 5 percent in 2014 to between 7 and 8 percent over the past five years. It has also worked on developmental, infrastructure and clean energy projects such as its much-needed Swachh Bharat (Clean India) program and its 100 percent village electrification program. But it is on the national security front that the Modi government has delivered the most. Not surprisingly, Modi has been campaigning on his national security credentials. These include his government’s zero-tolerance approach to terrorism, its response to China and Pakistan’s aggressive posturing and the BJP’s stated aim of India achieving its rightful place in the world.

Modi’s quest for India’s rightful place in the world

Opinion polls suggest national security will play out as one of the main issues in the Indian elections. But the opposition has downplayed its importance and has instead sought to shift the focus to issues of unemployment and farmer distress. But Modi and leaders of the BJP have focused on highlighting their achievements on national security throughout the campaign. On 27 March, just after the election date was set, Modi made a televised address to the nation in which he announced India had conducted “Mission Shakti,” an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test in which it successfully shot one of its own satellites out of orbit.

The ASAT test demonstrated India’s defensive and retaliatory power in space. Modi declared India a space superpower in the same league as the United States, Russia and China – a title it has long sought. After World War II, despite being on the side of the victors and having had its soldiers fighting alongside the allied powers, India was denied its rightful status and became a victim of a discriminatory international regime. It was denied permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and also nuclear power status, which was given only to those nations that had built and tested nuclear devices prior to 1 January 1967. India conducted its first atomic test in 1974 but then did not conduct one again until 1998. Despite initial resistance to India’s nuclear activities, the United States and India eventually entered into a civilian nuclear agreement in 2008. But India is still facing challenges to its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group due to strong opposition from China. The discriminatory global nuclear regime has hampered India’s energy security efforts, its defence industry programme and denied it its rightful status in the world. The BJP is a revivalist party with the agenda of India achieving its rightful place in the world. In 1998, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his BJP government challenged the dominant nuclear discourse and the discriminatory nuclear regime and went ahead with the atomic test to declare India a nuclear power. Clearly, Modi had a similar thing in mind. The ASAT test was to demonstrate that India cannot be left out again if an international space regime is created in the future. Modi has taken the initiative to put India among one of the world’s leading nations.

India’s ambition to be recognised as one of the leading powers of the world is driven by a long history of subjugation by foreign powers and status denial. Historically, it dates back to the Muslim conquests of the Subcontinent in the 12th and 16th centuries, economic exploitation by colonial powers and an unjust discriminatory post-war international order in which India has often been constrained from regaining its past glory. India’s quest for its rightful place in the world is not an end in itself but a means to secure the economic well-being of its people and to protect them from external security threats.

Zero tolerance on terrorism

Modi has also recently been faced with the challenge of delivering a tough response to the Pulwama terror attack. Modi made the decision to conduct an air strike on terror camps in Pakistan. In doing so, he highlighted the threat of terrorism and Pakistan’s failure and passivity in allowing operations to occur across the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir. He also sidelined Pakistan diplomatically in international fora. Such measures have allowed Modi to demonstrate his government’s national security credentials.

By contrast, the previous UPA government failed miserably on national security issues. Its counter-terrorism strategy failed to tackle domestic terrorism, such as that backed by Pakistan-based terror organisations which sought to indoctrinate Muslim youths in India to unleash terror attacks at home. Between 2004 and 2014, India was one of the most terrorism affected countries in the world, behind only Iraq and Pakistan. The Congress-led UPA government failed to curb terrorism and provide security for Indian citizens. Indian cities faced the wrath of Jihadi terrorism in incidents such as the horrendous Mumbai terror attack in which more than 300 people were killed.

In the past five years, not a single terrorist attack has been carried out in an Indian city. Many terror attacks were foiled, including one on the eve of Republican Day in January which was masterminded by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). However, JeM has been able to carry out terror attacks on the borders in Punjab and Kashmir. The September 2016 surgical strike after the Uri terrorist attack on terror camps in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and the Pulwama terror attack response by air strike on JeM terror camps in Balakot indicate a significant shift from the previous Congress government’s response. It is becoming a new normal in India’s response to Pakistan-based terrorist attacks in India and Pakistan’s nuclear blackmailing. India’s retaliatory actions have increased the Modi government’s credibility to deliver on matters of national security and resulted in a surge in the Modi government’s popularity.

Poll prospects

The Modi government’s credentials on national security will help the BJP to consolidate its position amongst India’s “status-centric” and fast-growing middle-classes, who are also becoming globally aware and conscious of their country’s rising profile. Modi has strengthened his hand by making high-profile foreign visits and developing relationships with like-minded nations with whom India can collaborate on security. Notably, he has worked to deepen counter-terrorism ties with the United States and Israel.

Given Modi and the BJP’s tough stance on terrorism, it is possible the recent 21 April attacks in Sri Lanka may work in their favour at the polls. Indian citizens were amongst the more than 350 people killed in the attacks and reports suggest the attackers had also planned to target the Indian High Commission in Colombo. The attacks are suspected to have been carried out by a little-known Jihadist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, led by Mohammed Zaharan. On 23 April, Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attacks and released a video which purported to show Zaharan and several of the attackers pledging their allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Indian intelligence services also had prior knowledge that attacks were imminent in Sri Lanka and had passed this onto the intelligence services there. They are reported to have been watching Zaharan and to have discovered links between him and IS cells in southern India. No doubt Modi and the BJP will benefit as terrorism has resurfaced on the agenda during the elections.

With polling underway, the Modi and the BJP continue to push their national security credentials. They clearly see this as a key issue for Indian voters and one on which Modi and the BJP can dominate the entire opposition.

Dr Ashok Sharma is visiting fellow at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, adjunct associate professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra and deputy chair of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Auckland. He is the author of “Indian lobbying and its Influence in US Decision Making: Post-Cold War.”

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.