How the BJP is losing control of the narrative
The ruling party’s monopoly over national discourse is showing signs of strain.
Now that the dust over the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman is settling, it’s becoming apparent that Narendra Modi and his government have suffered a setback. A major setback. That too, in a domain that has long been a monopoly of the BJP: Image management.
The first sign of the crumbling façade came when the political leadership virtually disappeared from the scene. When Pakistan announced that it had captured an Indian pilot, the jingoism and chest-thumping over the IAF’s airstrike in Balakot suddenly sounded hollow. In some quarters, like with the BJP top brass, it stopped altogether.
Now, it was no longer Modi addressing the public with how the ‘armed forces have been given a free hand’; it was an MEA spokesperson who broke the news of the capture. At a time when the nation needed the assurance of our leaders, we got a bureaucrat instead. Ravish Kumar became the harbinger of bad news.
Then came the press conference by three top officials of the Indian Armed Forces.
Still no sign of the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, or External Affairs Minister.
The briefing was initially scheduled for 5pm but Imran Khan threw it all off course.
Minutes before the conference, he announced the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan without any conditions.
For a party that was used to setting the narrative, the BJP was blindsided.
But the show must go on. So the press conference was rescheduled for 7pm. The personnel representing the IAF, Indian Navy, and Indian Army were doing what Modi refused to do himself: Face questions.
The armed forces, however, are not expected to speak for diplomacy. So what looked like a script that had been prepared to threaten Pakistan to release Wing Commander Abhinandan was recycled and reused. This happened at a time when the world was applauding Pakistan’s Prime Minister for his statesmanship.
Happiness was expressed over the release of the Indian pilot. But another round of macho talk ensued: that Pakistan was spreading misinformation (while addressing the very media that had been peddling fake news over the whole conflict), that India had evidence to prove a Pakistani jet had been taken down, and that any further “misadventure” by the Pakistanis would be met by a well-prepared force.
International doubt over Balakot
Running parallel to all of this were reports by the international media on the Balakot airstrike. They all expressed doubt over the number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists killed. Some of them even wrote that no substantial physical damage had been done to any structure.
The New York Times wrote: “The view that little had been damaged was supported by military analysts and two Western security officials, who said that any militant training areas at the site, in the Pakistani province of (KPK), had long since packed up or dispersed. Balakot and its surrounding area hosted numerous militant training camps until 2005, when a powerful earthquake struck the area, devastating its towns and villages. As international aid groups poured in to provide relief, militants packed up their camps and went elsewhere, to avoid being detected.”
Reuters wrote: “In Balakot, a town largely rebuilt after an earthquake in 2005, Zia Ul Haq, senior medical officer in Tehsil Headquarters Hospital said no casualties had been brought in on Tuesday.People in the area said Jaish-e-Mohammad did have a presence, running not an active training camp but a madrassa, or religious school, about one km from where the bombs fell.”
The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Aljazeera, and The BBC all expressed the same doubts.
Being used to a friendly media, the BJP-led government did not seem equipped to deal with having a different narrative from its own being pushed out.
Conflicting official information
The confusion in the Centre was further emphasised by the conflicting information coming from official channels.
On February 26, Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, said the Balakot airstrike killed “a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders, and groups of jihadis who were being trained for Fidayeen action were eliminated.”
On February 28, at the press conference with the armed forces, Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapur backtracked on the claims. Asked about how much damage the warplanes had caused, he said it was “premature” to provide details about casualties.
Of course, even at this point, nobody from the political leadership had officially spoken to the press or to the country on the ongoing conflict.
Where are our leaders?
The actions (or lack of action) of our Prime Minister, Defence Minister, and External Affairs Minister did not help their image either.
Modi did not receive Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman when he arrived in Delhi on March 1. He was busy talking of Varthaman being Tamilian at a public rally in Kanyakumari.
This is in sharp contrast to how, just two weeks before, he had received Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Delhi. Salman had arrived in India on February 19, five days after the Pulwama attack and a day after he had promised $20 billion dollar in aid to Pakistan.
Modi hugged him, to the consternation of many.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s conspicuous absence had left many wondering why the ministry in charge of India’s security was nowhere in the scene.
To make matters worse, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy hinted that Sitharaman had not even been aware of the Balakot airstrike until it had already happened. The Defence Minister of the country had not been privy to an action that had purportedly been done to defend the country from terrorists.
The biggest fall in image this week, though, has been that of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
On March 1, the day of the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, she was addressing a Foreign Ministers’ conclave held by the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation in Abu Dhabi. Her Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, had boycotted the OIC conclave because of India’s presence.
In a major embarrassment, the OIC drafted a resolution on March 2 that supported Pakistan on the Kashmir issue.
The resolution criticised India for "indiscriminate use of force against innocent Kashmiris" and hit out at the "intensified Indian barbarities" and "illegal detentions and disappearances" in Jammu and Kashmir.
At this point, the BJP’s usually tight hold on the narrative is floundering.
Of all the people to steal the narrative from the ruling party, nobody expected Pakistan to do it. Under the leadership of former cricketer Imran Khan, Pakistan seemed to be doing just that.
The BJP has lost face to its arch nemesis: A Muslim country. The challenge before it is to regain its hold over the narrative at a time when criticism of the government’s handling of the situation has begun.