Pulwama could help Modi swing the poll war

India and Pakistan may now have an uneasy truce or a resumption of hostilities. Yet the chances of a temporary truce look high, after the return of downed Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman. The political outcome will boost Narendra Modi’s chances of returning to power in the next election, though this is not certain. He boasts that the Congress did not retaliate after the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, but he had the gumption to retaliate against terrorist attacks at Uri and Pulwama.

Two months ago, I assessed Modi’s chances of returning to power at 50%. Today it is 70% or more. The odds could change if fresh terrorist attacks spur more fighting. But the conflict has galvanised India, highlighting the case for uniting behind a strong leader who acts tough. If this swings just 20 seats, that may clinch the issue.

Alternative facts were not invented by Donald Trump. India and Pakistani have long given different accounts of the same event. Pakistani textbooks say the three greatest historical heroes are Mohammed Ghori, Aurangzeb and Jinnah. Indian textbooks paint them as the greatest villains. After the 1965 war, both sides claimed victory, exaggerating gains and underplaying losses.

Alternative facts are on display again today. Both sides claim far greater gains than losses. In boxing parlance, India claims it has won on points, though not by a knockout. Pakistan claims the same. India has proved its willingness to use military force after a terrorist attack, going deep into Pakistani territory. Pakistan has proved it will retaliate forcefully to any Indian attack. India claims to have demolished a major terrorist camp in Balakot, eliminated 300 terrorists (including the brother of Masood Azhar), and shot down a Pakistani plane. Pakistan claims there was no camp and, hence, no damaged target, and that it shot down two Indian planes without losing any of its own.

Neither side wants an outright war that would devastate both nations. India called the Balakot raid a nonmilitary intervention and a pre-emptive raid to prevent a future attack rather than revenge for Pulwama. After the air battle, Pakistan called for diplomatic dialogue and not military escalation. This improves the chances of a prolonged truce, though nothing is ruled out. Another terrorist attack in Kashmir will set off further armed conflict.

Assuming no more fighting till the election, how will current events affect Modi’s chances? History shows that even the greatest victories do not guarantee re-election for the winner. Churchill led Britain to victory in World War II but was thrashed in the 1946 election because the working class was fed up with prolonged Conservative rule during the Great Depression. George H W Bush won the Iraq war in 1991 but lost the 1992 election because of unemployment caused by a recession. A Democratic car sticker said pithily, “Saddam Hussein has kept his job. Have you?”

Atal Bihari won the Kargil war in 1999. This helped him win the subsequent election. However, the NDA vote share (37%) rose only marginally, and its seat tally improved modestly from 254 to 270. But the TDP, not a formal ally, had 3.65% of the total vote and 29 seats, and by backing Vajpayee, ensured him a comfortable majority.

Clearly winning a war does not guarantee an electoral sweep. Luckily for Modi, the impact will be highest in north India (where it can help him greatly) and least in the south (where Modi has minimal chances anyway). If he gets an additional 1% to 2% of vote share, concentrated in the north, that can swing many seats. A swing of just 20 seats out of 543 might make the difference between victory and defeat. A swing of 30 seats could be conclusive.

A Times Now opinion poll before Pulwama gave the NDA 252 seats, just 21 short of a majority, enabling Modi to form a government in coalition with some regional parties. Pessimists estimated that the BJP would win no more than 180 seats and the NDA no more than 205 seats, leaving other parties with 338 seats. This would mean a Third Front or Congress government.

Assume now that the battle with Pakistan adds just 20 seats to Modi’s tally. By the Times Now yardstick, this will give the NDA a virtual majority. Going by the pessimists’ yardstick, 20 additional seats will take the NDA to 225 seats. It will need 48 seats more from regional parties to form a wider coalition government, which is very difficult. Yet it is not impossible.

In sum, Modi must be smiling. His prospects have improved a lot.

What do you think?