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OPINION | From Punjab CM's Praise to Criticism by Top Brass, How Congress is Using 'Advantage Air Strike' Ahead of Polls

In contrast to its chief ministers, the Congress' central leadership mishandled the issue by focusing their energies more on bashing the Prime Minister than Pakistan.

Bhavdeep Kang |

Updated:March 13, 2019, 11:09 AM IST
OPINION | From Punjab CM's Praise to Criticism by Top Brass, How Congress is Using 'Advantage Air Strike' Ahead of Polls
File photo of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi with Punjab Chief Minister (PTI)

The BJP's hopes of leveraging a post-Pulwama wave of nationalism into a slam-dunk victory in the Lok Sabha polls, may run aground in Congress-ruled states, where the chief ministers have curbed the ruling party's 'air strike advantage'.

In Punjab, the advantage is entirely with the soldier-statesman chief minister, Captain Amarinder Singh. A senior BJP office-bearer said admiringly, “Captain is a true nationalist”. (High praise from an RSS footsoldier.)

The Punjab CM's thundering “Enough is enough” address in the state assembly, a day after the Pulwama blasts, appeared to come straight from the heart. He spoke with an absolute conviction untainted by politics: “I want to warn General Bajwa (Pakistan army chief) and his stooges, the ISI, that if they dare to enter Punjab we will set them right...if you are a Punjabi, we too are Punjabis and we will set you right.”

When Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, whose 'bromance' with Pakistan PM Imran Khan has often invited criticism, took a contrary stand, the CM made it clear that he found Sidhu quite frivolous.

In contrast to Sidhu's taunting tweet on the Balakot IAF strike “Were you uprooting terrorist or trees? Was it an election gimmick?”, the Captain stood by the government: “Whether it was one killed or 100, the message had gone out loud and clear – that India will not let the killing of its innocent soldiers and citizens go unpunished.”

The SAD-BJP alliance's guns have been effectively spiked: the louder it tomtoms the air-strike, the more brownie points the Captain will get. For his part, he has said that the subject is beyond politics.

Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, who (unlike the Captain) does not have an army background, set off on a much-publicised tour of the state's 1,000-km border with Pakistan, ostensibly to buck up the BSF jawans stationed there.

The country stood with the soldiers securing its borders, he said in Jaisalmer. He saluted the jawans for “serving the nation in tough conditions like famine, drought and sandstorm” and made it a point to tweet about interacting with them over lunch. In so doing, he signalled that the state was in safe hands, with a CM alert to any breach of national security.

Gehlot lost no time in announcing an award of Rs 50 lakh for the families of the five soldiers killed at Pulwama, in addition to jobs and scholarships for their children. In a small but effective gesture, he auctioned off his gifts and momentos to raise more money for the bereaved families.

His immediate response to the Balakot air strike was to laud the Indian Air Force, which has six bases in Rajasthan: “The nation is proud of you...I salute your bravery.” But thereafter – doubtless adjured by the central leadership — he took the party line in demanding evidence of the death toll in the IAF operation.

Madhya Pradesh CM Kamal Nath hotfooted it to Jabalpur, hometown of slain CRPF soldier Ashwini Kachhi, to attend his funeral, after announcing a Rs 1 crore award for the bereaved family. (By contrast, the NDA goofed in failing to receive the body of CRPF inspector Pintu Singh, even as the PM was roared against Pakistan at a rally in Patna -- an error for which the JD(U) later apologised).

The wily MP CM quickly shifted the discourse from Pakistan's aggression to domestic issues which are the BJP's soft spots. He doubled the OBC quota in the state from 14 to 27 per cent, just before the poll schedule was announced. He also brought the unemployment issue back into the public discourse, by declaring “job-oriented skill development” as the state's top priority.

As veterans, the Congress chief ministers are not in the least self-conscious about being dubbed nationalists. The younger post-Ram Janambhoomi generation, on the other hand, tends to perceive it as synonymous with majoritarianism, leaving the nationalism card to the BJP.

In contrast to its chief ministers, the Congress' central leadership mishandled the issue on three counts. First, post-Pulwama, they focused their energies more on bashing the Prime Minister than Pakistan. Second, post-Balakot, after rather cursorily lauding the IAF, they immediately began questioning the veracity of the air strike. The BJP seized the opportunity to hammer the Opposition for distrusting the armed forces and being wishy-washy on national security. Third, instead of turning public attention to domestic problems, Congress spokespersons spun out the Pulwama-Balakot issue much longer than they should have.

(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)

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