Why is Modi’s BJP obsessed with anti-Pakistan rhetoric this election cycle?

Experts and analysts believe this year's polls are all about the common man's issues.
Published June 3, 2024

“INDI gathbandhan ke neta kehte hain k Pakistan ne choodiyan nahi pehni hain, arre bhai pehna denge. (The politicians of INDI alliance say Pakistan has not worn bangles, oh brother we will make it wear them.)”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s jibe at an election rally in Muzaffarnagar last month was aimed more at his political opponents than the neighbouring country. The remarks, a direct response to an earlier comment by National Congress leader Farooq Abdullah, underscore the heightened political tensions and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) efforts to galvanise voter support through strong nationalistic sentiments.

With the tenure of the 17th Lok Sabha of the Indian Parliament scheduled to end on June 16, India just completed its 44-day election cycle — starting April 19 and ending June 1 — to elect 543 members to the Lok Sabha.

This wasn’t the first time that Pakistan had been dragged into India’s political rhetoric. Over the years, the BJP has increasingly used the neighbouring country as a rhetorical punching bag, particularly as the campaign has heated up in successive elections cycles.

Distortive narratives

The recent escalation, with PM Modi taking jabs at the INDIA bloc — a multi-party alliance led by the country’s largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress — using Pakistan, can be traced to an interview of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, published by the Press Trust of India.

During the interview, Singh had asserted that India didn’t need to forcefully capture Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) since people were willing to be a part of India having witnessed the developments in Indian occupied Kashmir. The annexation of AJK remains a prominent and contentious agenda on the BJP’s election manifesto, fuelling further debate and drama.

According to media reports, Abdullah, in response to the defence minister’s statement, said: “If the defence minister is saying so, they can go ahead and do it, but remember they are also not wearing bangles; the country has atom bombs, and unfortunately, the bombs will fall on us.”

A few days later, an old video of Mani Shankar Aiyar resurfaced, creating quite a stir. In the clip, the veteran Congress leader can be heard referring to Pakistan as “the biggest asset to India” and advocating for dialogue with the neighbouring country.

Unsurprisingly, his comment was taken out of context, inciting a political firestorm. Aiyar’s remarks were interpreted by some as suggesting that India should engage with Pakistan out of fear of the latter’s nuclear arsenal — a stark misrepresentation of what the Congress leader actually meant.

During the Muzaffarnagar rally, Modi seized on this distorted narrative and accused the Congress-led INDIA alliance of being scared of Pakistan, suggesting that leaders of the bloc seem to be plagued by nightmares of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.

BJP’s campaign strategy

“The BJP’s Pakistan rhetoric during this election is different from 2019, which was all about the Pulwama-Balakot attacks and deterrence. It was built on the interplay between terrorism from Pakistan and nationalism from India; that’s why the BJP took the stand: ‘Ghar me ghus ke maarenge (We will enter your homes and hit you)’,” said A*, a professor of international relations at one of India’s largest universities, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivities surrounding the topic.

“But in 2024, the rhetoric revolves around a decision taken in August 2019 — revoking Article 370 of the Constitution. It is built around taking control of all of Kashmir. The prime minister has been emphasising Pakistan’s economic and political instability, as well as its involvement in Afghanistan and the resulting backlash.

“This was to portray Pakistan as a weakened state. Previously, the BJP’s narrative centred around branding Pakistan as a hub of terrorism. However, the narrative has now evolved. The message being conveyed is that while Pakistan remains a terrorist state, it is now weak and fragile, in stark contrast to India’s growing strength on the global stage,” A* continued.

During the 2024 elections, the BJP’s campaign strategy has included a blend of anti-Pakistan rhetoric, Hindu-Muslim dynamics, and foreign policy stances designed to appeal to voters in the west and north of India. Yet, these themes have not resonated as much in the eastern and southern parts of the country.

“Even among those who support these views, it’s uncertain if they will translate into votes,” A* added.

During various election rallies, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have said that if the BJP comes back to power, the party will move aggressively on “taking back” AJK, as the party has always mentioned in its manifesto, to reclaim the part of Kashmir that lies on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LOC).

Concurring with A*, Ajay Darshan Behera, a professor at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, said: “It was all about Pulwama back in 2019. Congress had a similar manifesto in a limited way back in 2019, but once Pulwama happened, the opposition was totally blown away by the BJP’s nationalist narrative.”

“In 2024, the rhetoric on Pakistan has diminished due to visible fatigue among the voters. People are more worried about day-to-day problems like unemployment and inflation. After 10 years of BJP rule, they have realised the false promises made by the BJP. After 10 years of BJP rule, many have become disillusioned with the party’s unfulfilled promises.

“This time, the opposition has wisely avoided getting entangled in the BJP’s anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim narratives, focusing instead on concrete issues that directly impact people’s lives,” Behera added.

Meanwhile, Modi and his party did not just continue to bring Pakistan into their election campaigns but also went on to accuse Congress, the main opposition party, of supporting and receiving support from the neighbouring country.

On May 1, Pakistan’s former information minister Fawad Chaudhry tweeted a video of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with the comment, “Rahul on Fire”. The tweet went viral, racking up 1.8 million views.

BJP leader Amit Malviya, head of the party’s IT Wing, responded, “Is the Congress planning to contest the election in Pakistan? From a manifesto that has imprints of the Muslim League to a ringing endorsement from across the border, Congress’s dalliance with Pakistan can’t get more obvious.”

Behera, however, dismissed this as yet another attempt to distort reality. “For no reason, Mani Shankar Aiyar’s old video has been brought up during this election, with BJP campaigners claiming that Pakistan wants Rahul Gandhi to be the prime minister and that Congress will support Pakistan if they come to power. But these false narratives are not working; people are more concerned about other things now,” Professor Behera added.

‘People don’t care anymore’

Bharat Bhushan, senior journalist and former editor of Economic and Political Weekly and The Telegraph, raises a pertinent question: “BJP leaders have always claimed that Pakistan wants Congress to win. Why should Pakistan care about Indian elections until and unless there is a provocation? But that’s the BJP’s usual narrative, and Fawad Chaudhry’s tweet gave the BJP even more of a reason to accuse the Congress of getting support from Pakistan.”

“People don’t care anymore. The prime minister does this again and again to ginger up his base. It is only the hardcore BJP supporters want to hear this; it’s for them.”

Bharat said that Modi projects himself as a statesman and goes on to hug Biden, Trump, and all the world leaders to project himself as a great world leader. But back home, he is a majoritarian Hindu leader who makes demeaning comments like “Churiyan pehna denge (We will make you wear bangles)” against Pakistan.

According to Bharat, the BJP appeared to have resisted the temptation to use anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the initial stages of its election campaign. “But perhaps worried by the low voter turnout, the prime minister soon switched to his old tactics,” said Bharat, quoting Modi as saying at a public rally that “‘Muslims give birth to four children, and if Congress comes to power, they will distribute the wealth of Hindus to Muslims’, which was never mentioned in the Congress manifesto,” the journalist pointed out.

The BJP does not talk about jobs for youth given that unemployment has been the highest in the last four decades, neither does it discuss resolving farmers’ issues — actual issues that many Indian voters care about. Meanwhile, India’s relationship with Pakistan has come to the lowest level during the BJP rule. It does not have high commissioners or visas for Pakistanis, there is no trade relationship between the two states, diplomatic relations have hit rock bottom, and the BJP is thriving only on its anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan rhetoric.

India’s foreign policy with respect to Pakistan has also remained highly questionable. According to a recent report by The Guardian, India’s foreign intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (Raw), has been involved in the killings of up to 20 individuals in Pakistan since 2020 as part of its policy to target terrorists living on foreign soil.

The report further mentions that India has previously denied any involvement in the assassinations, but after the Guardian report, India’s defence minister was quoted as saying: “If any terrorist from a neighbouring country tries to disturb India or carry out terrorist activities here, he will be given a fitting reply. If he escapes to Pakistan, we will go to Pakistan and kill him there.”

“Even extrajudicial killings in Canada, the BJP would have admitted to, if not for the severe criticism from the US. One won’t be surprised if the BJP uses The Guardian’s report to their advantage, claiming pride in this, to project Pakistan as a terrorist country, adding the party’s age-old technique that only the BJP can save this country from terrorist attacks,” Shivasundar, a senior political journalist writing for The Wire, stated.

All said and done, experts and analysts believe that the 2024 election is about unemployment, price hikes, and the common man’s issues, while nationalism and anti-Pakistan narratives do not matter anymore.

Header image: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi displays a copy of the ruling BJP election manifesto for the general election, in New Delhi, India, April 14, 2024. — Reuters