Note: This article was first published on March 15, 2019 and is being republished on February 12, 2020, the anniversary of the Pulwama attack.
The Pulwama terror attacks unleashed an ugly frenzy within the Indian public sphere. There were angry calls for retributive action and even war from sections of the television media and the citizenry.
Those appealing for restraint and mobilising opinion against war were labelled with the choicest epithets which have now become a regrettable, yet expected feature of the Indian political discourse over the last five years.
On the other hand, there were those who argued that parties should not “politicise” issues of national security. While the time for voicing political opinions might not have been ripe in the immediate aftermath of the actions undertaken by the government, sober reflection on the series of events which have transpired since the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and, more importantly, the last five years, reveal a certain trend which merits some engagement.
The alt-right revolution and the Modi doctrine
India is witnessing the most concerted ideological attack on liberalism since independence under Modi. The liberal framework conceives of a government by consent which essentially means that we arrive at important policy decisions through public deliberation and debates.
A politics without the “other” is the bedrock of liberal politics and parliamentary democracy as envisaged in our constitution. So, while we have differences with the opposition, they are not considered a threat or an enemy, hence, we can sort out our differences through conversation.
That is why the political discourse in the post-Independence era was characterised by slogans like “Nation building”, “Garibi Hataao” etc. The figure of the “other” or the traitor was missing in the political discourse. Even movements against caste oppression which rhetorically pitted the Savarna against the Avarna were, in fact, movements for the recognition of dignity and not retribution. So, while they critiqued the limits of the liberal framework, they never intended to destroy it.
On the other hand, the conservative alt-right movement led by the BJP in India finds its ideological sustenance in the ideology of Hindutva, which is based on the projection of an ever-present existential threat to the Hindu culture or nation by the “other”.
The philosophical roots of their conception of politics can be traced back to Carl Schmitt, who conceived of politics as primarily making a distinction between friend and enemy; one does not deliberate with the enemy. Bereft of the “enemy”, Hindutva loses all its political traction and therefore, it is imperative for them to constantly project the figure of the enemy for political mobilisation. Prime Minister Modi has masterfully used national security as a tool towards this end.
His doctrine is simple: Securitise politics and politicise security.
For the Modi regime, all politics is a question of security except for security itself, which is milked for political gains, as recent events have shown. In the last five years, questions of national security have quietly encroached upon the terrain of everyday politics. It is no coincidence that Jawaharlal Nehru University students became a national security threat overnight; the home minister had himself alleged, based on tweets, that these students had connections with Hafiz Saeed.
Moreover, in the aftermath of the recent attack, former general and current junior minister of external affairs V.K. Singh targeted critical voices like Kanhaiya Kumar as somehow being responsible for undermining national security. Similar attacks awaited anti-death penalty activists and certain critical news anchors.
Even a policy like demonetisation was not backed solely by economic reasoning. It was not enough to say that demonetisation would lead to ridding us of the bane of black money but, it was argued that demonetisation would lead to curbing terrorism in Kashmir and Naxalism in the red corridor. Although after the Reserve Bank of India released the data of the cash returned and fake currency destroyed, it seems doubtful that the policy attained any of its specified objectives.
On the other hand, no stone was left unturned to take political advantage of the entire episode. Post-Pulwama, rather than fixing responsibility with the home minister for one of the biggest lapses in internal security in recent history, the prime minister went to Churu and used the photos of the martyrs to launch into a campaign speech. Soon after the air strike, hoardings propped up in different parts of the country congratulating PM Modi for his decision and the BJP Delhi chief donned military fatigues for his campaign.
More importantly, Modi claimed that the nation had suffered because of the absence of Rafale Jets during the air strikes while BJP president Amit Shah claimed that over 250 terrorists had been killed. Both these claims were contradicted by the Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa in his measured statement.
Similarly, it was perhaps for the first time in India’s history that hoardings of surgical strikes were put up in Uttar Pradesh following the military action in Uri. This time around the Election Commission had to intervene and issue a notice that parties should refrain from using photos of defence personnel for their political campaigns.
War is politics by other means
The Modi doctrine achieves two goals for the regime – firstly, securitising domestic politics paints opponents as enemies of the people or internal security threats, enabling political mobilisation against them; secondly, politicising security issues performs the ideological function of bringing an otherwise distant enemy into the everyday lives of people and converts it into an immediate existential threat which requires the citizenry to privilege duties over rights, obedience over criticality and order over democracy.
Both these moves, in effect, create a deafening silence in the public discourse and stifle the dialogic essence of democracy. We must remember the old adage by Clausewitz – war is merely politics by other means. Therefore, issues of national security must not be shrouded by silence but boldly debated in the public sphere.
After all, those brave men are sent into harm’s way by politicians in our name. The least we owe them is to uphold the democratic values for which they fight.
Anshul Trivedi completed his MPhil from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is an activist and a freelance journalist. He tweets @anshultrivedi47.