On Valentine’s Day this year, at least 46 Indian soldiers were killed in a terror attack on a convoy in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. That saw tensions quickly escalate between New Delhi and Islamabad, as Pakistan also lays claim to that territory, and the two countries sent bombers across each other’s borders. But Rahul Gandhi, the president of the Congress party — India’s principal opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party — made clear that as long as the threat of war loomed, his party wouldn’t question the government’s course of action.
To the world, Gandhi’s refusal to point fingers at the opposition during a national crisis may look virtuous: They were giving up the opportunity to score political points even though elections to the world’s largest democracy are set to start within weeks. But in reality, India’s political class learned a lesson about politicizing tragedy more than a decade ago, during one of the darkest moments in the country’s recent history, when the parties’ roles were reversed.
It was November 2008 and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai was under siege. Terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group operating out of Pakistan, were holed up inside, going room to room and killing guests. They had already shot up Mumbai’s busiest railway station during rush hour, killed some of the city’s top cops, murdered a rabbi and his wife at a synagogue and fired on patrons at a popular pub. By the time Indian security forces eventually killed or captured the perpetrators, more than 150 civilians were dead.
But state elections in Delhi were just days away. And national elections were due within months. That’s when the BJP, targeting the then-in-power Congress Party, published a series of controversial newspaper advertisements. One read “Brutal Terror Strikes at Will,” laid over a bloody red splotch, with the tagline “Fight Terror, Vote BJP.” Another, signed by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP, read “I am anguished by the loss of every Indian who has fallen victim to terror.” It then got even more specific: “We must elect a government that can fight terror, tooth and nail.”
“[The BJP] published those ads blaming the government for being ‘weak,’” says Ashis Nandy, one of India’s most reputed sociologists. “It was an attempt to get votes in Delhi.”
But the advertisements quickly became the focus of a political debate. Was the BJP politicizing a crisis or merely highlighting what many felt? Voters swiftly answered that question: The ads, which Congress Party member Rachit Seth called “blood-stained,” backfired spectacularly on the BJP. In the Delhi legislature, the Congress party lost few seats and retained power. And the following May 2009, the Congress party gained 60 seats, some at the expense of the BJP.
A decade later, another election season has been roiled by rising tensions with Pakistan, and the country is on edge. But this time, says Nandy, the BJP “is behaving exactly like the Congress party [once did].”
Of course, India’s political parties are still resorting to jingoism for political gain. At every political rally, Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have lauded their own government’s “resolve” in sending bombers into Pakistan to demolish a terrorist camp. Meanwhile, the opposition — the Congress party and also smaller regional parties — is questioning the government’s claims, seeking evidence that India’s raids into Pakistani territory actually destroyed militant facilities. One senior BJP leader, former chief minister of the state of Karnataka B.S. Yeddyurappa, even said publicly that the heightened tensions with Pakistan might help the party win seats in the state.
Yet there’s a key difference from 2008: Parties have learned that blaming the sitting government for terrorist attacks at such a moment doesn’t work. The politics of national security — by both sides — continues. But neither party has resorted to blood-soaked advertisements.
This spring, OZY will be reporting untold stories from every Indian state and union territory, introducing you to new people, trends and places. Join us for the ride.