March 4, 2019 / 3:14 PM / 3 months ago

With worries of war and an upcoming election, support surges for India's Modi

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has slammed opposition parties for demanding evidence about last week’s military strike inside Pakistan, and support for him is rising, pollsters say, despite the questions about how successful it was.

FILE PHOTO: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the National Cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

It’s very tricky to be seen questioning the armed forces in India, particularly when there is conflict with arch-enemy Pakistan. But that hasn’t stopped opposition leaders from raising doubts about the government’s official claims that a “very large number” of members of an Islamist militant group were killed in the strike by Indian warplanes early on Feb. 26.

The government has rejected the demand for proof.

“At a time when our army is engaged in crushing terrorism, inside the country and outside, there are some people within the country who are trying to break their morale, which is cheering our enemy,” Modi said at an election rally on Sunday.

“I want to know from (the opposition) Congress and its partners why they are making statements that are benefiting the enemies.”

With tensions at fever-pitch with nuclear rival Pakistan, and India’s general election due by May, the stakes are high. Pakistan responded with an air strike of its own, but no one was killed in that operation. The situation is slightly calmer but remains fraught; the two armies continue to regularly trade artillery fire at places along the frontier.

“If (the opposition) continues this campaign on ... national security, I’m afraid it is not going to stick and it’s only going to help Modi,” Yashwant Deshmukh, the founder of polling agency C-Voter, told Reuters. “Modi’s is a presidential campaign, and this is going to help him.”

The agency has not published any poll after the military strike, but Deshmukh said Modi’s approval rating has soared to levels not seen since mid-2017, according to C-Voter’s estimates.

Opinion polls conducted before the tensions with Pakistan broke out mostly predicted Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would struggle to win a majority because of a slowing economy, low rural incomes and the government’s inability to provide more jobs.

But pollsters and political analysts say Modi’s support is now rising, mainly because right-wing parties like the BJP typically have an advantage over others on national security issues.

“It doesn’t matter what India did or what Pakistan is doing, at least from the electoral perspective,” said Rahul Verma, a fellow at the New Delhi-based think-tank, Centre for Policy Research.

“What matters is what kind of perception the media and the BJP and Modi can create. If they can create it like a crisis, ‘we did something, we need a strong guy leading the country’, they have an advantage. So the details don’t matter.”

Indian air force planes carried out last week’s strike in retaliation to a suicide attack in the disputed Kashmir region that was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad militant group. At least 40 paramilitary troopers travelling in a convoy were killed, the worst such attack in three decades of insurgency in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region claimed by both Hindu-majority India and Islamic Pakistan.

“TERRORISTS OR TREES?”

A top government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that at least 300 suspected militants were killed in the retaliatory Indian air strike, while the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, put the figure at more than 250.

Pakistan has said the Indian bombs hit a largely empty hillside near the northeastern town of Balakot without hurting anyone.

“300 terrorists dead, yes or no?” Navjot Singh Sidhu, a leader of the Congress party, asked in a tweet on Monday.

“What was the purpose then? Were you uprooting terrorists or trees? Was it an election gimmick? Deceit possesses our land in guise of fighting a foreign enemy. Stop politicising the army, it is as sacred as the state.”

But pollsters say opposition parties may be making a mistake by questioning Modi on national security when emotions are running high.

They say that instead the opposition needs to get back to focusing on the BJP’s poor record on creating jobs and tackling farm distress. Those issues helped Congress oust the BJP from power in three states late last year.

“It is deeply regrettable and politically immoral on the part of the BJP to make political capital out of military endeavours during cross-border tensions with Pakistan,” Congress spokesman Sanjay Jha said.

“PM Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah are singularly responsible for lowering the political discourse in our country.”

Mehbooba Mufti, who governed the state of Jammu and Kashmir in alliance with the BJP until they split last year, agreed that it was important for the opposition to not let Modi make the election all about the strikes.

“Calling those who question the veracity of Balakot strikes anti-national is baffling,” Mufti said on Twitter. “However, the opposition should not fall into this trap of changing the entire election discourse from pressing issues ... to these strikes.”

Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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