How nationalism helped the BJP


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WHAT role did the Balakot air strikes play in shifting mainstream discourse towards nationalism, and did it prove to be instrumental in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) mammoth victory in the 2019 elections? We argue that nationalism tends to operate as a bridging issue, i.e. it allows parties to mobilize new voters without displeasing its core support base.1 Apart from helping get swing voters, the salience of nationalism and national security may have enthused the BJP’s traditional supporters and motivated a large proportion of them to get out and mobilize votes for the party, in addition to merely voting for it. While the BJP consistently makes conscious efforts to raise issues related to nationalism and national security, their electoral salience is partly contingent on relevant external trigger events. Such events can generate a momentary shift in public narrative which often persists if the moment is capitalized by the benefitting political party.

The high public awareness about the BJP’s response to Pulwama – the Balakot air strikes, made it easy for the BJP’s campaign machinery to keep nationalism salient for the voters throughout the campaign period.2 Prior to the election, many commentators using the examples from previous national security crisis (such as Kargil, Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, among others) had suggested that Pulwama and Balakot were unlikely to have a large impact on the BJP’s performance in the 2019 elections. The air strikes were not likely to be game changers for the BJP and voters would focus more on immediate economic concerns.3


While we agree that it was unlikely to be the sole determinant of the BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha victory, we show how the Pulwama attack and the Balakot strike in particular, and a national security crisis in general, contributed to the party’s massive victory. Alongside nationalism, core issues like development also mattered for voters and remained instrumental in clinching victory in this election, and on those economic fronts where the government did not perform well, nationalism helped the party in arresting the electoral harm it would have otherwise done.4

We provide evidence from pre and post poll surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) to show that a rise in nationalist sentiments worked in favour of the BJP. We find that the high awareness about Pulwama and Balakot, and a heightened polarization on national security, may have helped the BJP in this election. Further, a comparative analysis of the BJP’s gains in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, which were preceded by the Pokhran nuclear bomb test of May 1998, and the subsequent Kargil war in the summer of 1999, helped in discerning the plethora of ways in which the national security threat and the subsequent nationalist rhetoric helps the BJP.


Across the globe, nationalism is an integral component of the ideological platform of centre-right parties.5 Like its global counterparts, even the BJP has held an assertive position on nationalism since its foundation in 1980. While much of the existing scholarship on the rise of the BJP has focused on the use of Hindu nationalism, we are interested in a different conceptualization of nationalism. We assess how nationalism, framed around the issues of national security and sovereignty, has played a role in electoral mobilization in favour of the BJP.

What are the key features of this approach towards nationalism? First, the ‘other’ against which the party seeks to mobilize support, changes from a domestic minority to a hostile foreign country or external non-state actors. Second, we link this conceptualization of nationalism to the literature on a hawkish security policy.6 Third, the leadership would give greater focus on augmenting the global dominance and stature of the country.

This approach towards nationalism would always find greater public acceptability and support as compared to the traditional ethnic nationalism. Moreover, any policy based disagreement with this version of nationalism can be portrayed as an implicit support for the country’s adversary. It helps the BJP in dominating the campaign narrative and discourse, with little opportunities for the opposition to counter it. For instance, many argue that under Modi, the country’s policy on curtailing cross border terrorism has been altered permanently, and there has been an evident shift towards a hawkish foreign policy. Since the shift towards a hawkish foreign and security policy is portrayed in nationalist terms, it makes it difficult for the opposition to argue against such a shift.


We believe that the BJP is particularly likely to electorally benefit from a surge in nationalism. Why? The answer to this question lies partly in the issue ownership literature in political science.7 It is argued that political parties are viewed as more than a set of policy preferences they promote in their short-term campaigns. Parties have issue reputations, i.e. voters hold certain parties more competent on handling certain issues in comparison to other political parties. Put differently, not all parties are perceived to be equally competent in tackling all political, social, economic and security issues. A party’s issue reputation is not built overnight. It is a long-term process shaped by the policy stances they adopt and the constituencies they seek to attract. Furthermore, a party’s issue handling reputation is further shaped by the performance of the party while in office.

Moreover, we argue that being perceived relatively more competent on handling nationalist concerns of the voters is even more beneficial, as it allows the BJP to bridge contradictory social coalitions. Hindu nationalism as the party’s core ideology has its limits. It only appeals to the party’s core support base whereas a hawkish security policy allows the party to expand its support. In other words, it allows the party to keep the core Hindutva support base intact whilst attracting additional voters who are drawn to the party because of its reputation in handling national security concerns.


It is true that moderating its position on issues like the Ram Janmbhoomi dispute and Hindutva, among others, would also allow the party to move beyond the core group of Hindutva supporters, but this would come at the expense of losing support from the party’s core support base.

A party is always likely to concentrate on issues that would allow it to attract new support bases without losing support from its core constituencies. Moreover, it would make all efforts to ensure that such issues remain salient and dominate the public discourse. Thus, it is not a question of desirability but ability and feasibility. This process is often assisted by external events that trigger salience for particular issues. Thus, it is not surprising that the BJP makes a constant effort to ensure that nationalism and internal security issues remain relevant at the time of voting. External events often make them more salient at certain moments. If the moment is prior to an election, the BJP, like any other party seeking office is likely to try and reap electoral benefit from it, especially when it is the incumbent (due to the rally round the flag effect).


The Balakot air strikes were not the first time during the Modi government’s tenure that the BJP tried to shift the public discourse towards nationalism. Since 2014, the BJP has left no stone unturned to make nationalism a salient issue. In 2016, after pro-separatist slogans were raised at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the BJP was quick to react and use it as an opportunity to attack its opponents for being too soft on separatism and accused them of being ‘anti-national’.8

This was followed by conscious attempts to remind the electorate about the BJP’s commitment to nationalism. For instance, Prime Minister Modi himself urged party MPs and leaders to take out ‘Tiranga yatras’ in their respective constituencies on independence day. The 2016 surgical strike after the Uri terror attack was recalled by the BJP leaders in numerous election rallies in Uttar Pradesh and other states that went to polls in 2017. In fact, the BJP even tried to mobilize support for demonetization and subdue public anger for the inconvenience caused, through nationalist appeals. People were told on numerous occasions that they were making a selfless contribution to the nation by tolerating some inconvenience in their daily lives.

During the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Pulwama attack and the subsequent air strikes by India, made nationalism a salient issue while voting. Importantly, there was substantial public awareness about the air strikes. In NES 2019, around three-fourths of the respondents (76%) said that they had heard about India’s air strike on terrorist training camps in Pakistan, in response to the Pulwama attack. While awareness was associated with various individual attributes like media exposure, economic class, education etc, the absolute level of awareness was very high across groups. For instance, even among the poor, around two-third respondents were aware about the air strike. Similarly, more than half of the respondents (57%) who had said that they never watch TV news had heard about the air strikes.


There is little doubt that the high awareness about Balakot helped the BJP in this election. There is a significant gap in support for the BJP based on awareness about the air strikes. The party’s vote share among those who were aware about it was almost 13 percentage points higher – 45% as compared to those who weren’t aware about it. This gap remained. For instance, among the poor, support for the BJP was almost 10 percentage points higher among those who were aware about the air strikes. A similar trend is evident even among respondents with limited media exposure. Moveover, there is evidence for greater partisan polarization on the issue of national security.

In the Lokniti pre-poll survey 2019, respondents were asked how India should deal with cross border terrorism; whether India should destroy all terror camps in Pakistan, even if it meant risking a full-scale war; or if it should patiently engage in regular dialogue with Pakistan (see Table 1). A plurality of respondents (44%) supported offensive action, while slightly more than one-third (36%) were in favour of regular dialogue. Respondents were asked this question in NES 2009 as well and we find greater clarity in public opinion on this issue in 2019. This is evident in the sharp decline in the proportion of respondents who did not respond to this question.


Partisan Polarization on Security Policy





Offensive action

Regular dialogue

No response

Offensive action

Regular dialogue

No response








Congress voters







BJP voters







Note: All figures are in percent. Source: Lokniti-CSDS NES 2009 and pre-poll survey 2019. Question asked: Now I will read out two statements: (i) To stop cross border terrorism, India must destroy all terrorist camps in Pakistan; (ii) India must patiently engage Pakistan in regular dialogue. Do you agree with the first or the second statement?


The increased polarization of opinion is also accompanied with sharper partisan polarization on this issue. In 2009, both Congress and BJP supporters were more likely to support offensive action. Among the former, 37% respondents supported offensive action while among the latter close to half (47%), did so. Circa 2019, a plurality of Congress supporters are supportive of regular dialogue (42%). On the other hand, close to six out of ten (58%) BJP voters supported offensive action. This sharpened polarization would have definitely helped the BJP in the election.


Did the issues of national security and nationalism reduce the relative influence of other factors in this election? We find that nationalism took precedence over other issues like economic performance, unemployment and rural distress for some voters as they voted for the BJP despite being dissatisfied with the party’s performance on these matters.9 In the survey, close to one third (31%) respondents said that they were dissatisfied with their current financial condition. Even among this group, awareness about the air strikes seemed to have moderated the negative sentiment against the incumbent BJP. We find that voters who were dissatisfied with their financial condition and aware about Balakot were six percentage points more likely to vote for the BJP as compared to those who hadn’t heard about it. A similar sentiment was evident in the Lokniti pre-poll survey; the issue of nationalism had moderated the impact of some key economic issues in their opinion about re-electing the Modi government.


Further, revisiting the 1999 elections, which happened immediately after the Kargil war, helps in understanding how nationalism and national security work in favour of parties like the BJP. Soon after coming to power in May 1998, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government conducted the Pokhran nuclear tests in Rajasthan. The tests were conducted despite a threat of economic sanctions by major world economies. In addition, the BJP was heading the caretaker government when India went to war with Pakistan in the summer of 1999. The nuclear bomb test and the subsequent Kargil war electorally helped the BJP in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Using evidence from the 1999 NES, we empirically demonstrate how the Pokhran nuclear bomb test and the subsequent Kargil war electorally helped the BJP in the 1999 general elections.


In the NES 1999, respondents were asked if India should make a greater effort for friendly relations with Pakistan. We label respondents who disagree with this statement as security policy hawks, and those who agree with the statement or do not offer a response as security policy doves. To assess public exposure to the external threat and trigger event – the Kargil war – we constructed a salience index based on responses in the NES 1999 wave. Respondents were asked if they had heard about the Kargil war and whether the issue affected their voting decision in the election. This allowed us to create a three-level ordinal scale – never heard about the war (no salience), heard about the war, but did not affect voting (low salience), and heard about the war and it affected voting decision (high salience). We conducted multivariate analysis to assess whether voting for the BJP is associated with preferences on hawkish security policy, support for nuclear bomb tests, Kargil salience index, individual attributes like gender, social group, age, locality and state fixed effects. We graphically present our main results in Figure 1.

Figure 1 demonstrates that the probability of voting for the BJP is positively associated with both the salience of war and preferring a hawkish security policy. However, the increment is much sharper for respondents classified as security policy hawks as compared to doves. More importantly, partisan polarization on the basis of opinion on hawkish security policy is contingent on salience of the trigger event – Kargil war. This is because the difference in probability of voting BJP between doves and hawks is relatively higher among those who found the war to be more salient.

In addition, respondents were also asked about their opinion on Indian’s decision to test the nuclear bomb. Once again, in Figure 2, we see that the probability to vote for the BJP is positively associated with salience of the war and support for the nuclear bomb. However, the increment is much sharper for those who support the nuclear bomb tests, in comparison to those who oppose it. These results are robust to the inclusion of a number of control variables and multiple model specifications.


Security Policy and Support for BJP


Nuclear Bomb Support and Probability to Vote for BJP


In line with the issue ownership literature, the nuclear bomb test and the Kargil war makes the BJP come strong on national security issues in the eyes of the voters. From the party’s side, events like the nuclear bomb tests and the Kargil war, show that the party can bank on such events to create a surge in nationalism from which it benefits electorally. We also find evidence for Kargil and nationalism motivating core BJP workers to get out and mobilize votes for the party.

Also, we see that Kargil and nationalism triggered a change in opinion on nationalism and national security among some respondents which contributed towards them shifting to the BJP from Congress and regional parties. Similarly, we believe that Pulwama would have augmented the BJP prospects in multiple ways in the 2019 general election.

Construction of election majorities, especially for the kind of victory that the BJP achieved in this election, can be rarely attributed to a single factor. Similarly, alongside various other issues, nationalism and national security played an instrumental role in this election. While it is difficult to provide a robust estimate of the ‘Balakot effect’ with the prevailing data, we can safely conclude that the national security crisis played a key role for the BJP in the election.


* This essay draws from a working paper with Rahul Verma (Centre for Policy Research, Delhi) – ‘Nationalism and Rise of the Right: Evidence from India’ – in which we assess how a surge in nationalism triggered by events like the Pokhran nuclear test and the Kargil war partly explain the rise of the BJP in late 1990s.


1. L. De Sio and T. Weber, ‘Issue Yield: A Model of Party Strategy in Multidimensional Space’, American Political Science Review 108(4), November 2014, pp. 870-885.

2. See, Yogendra Yadav, ‘BJP Poll Campaign was a Perfect Ambush’, LiveMint, 19 May 2019.

3. For example, Shivam Vij had suggested that voters are more likely to care about their immediate economic concerns. See, ‘Why Air Strikes on Pakistan May Not Help Narendra Modi Win the Election?’ The Print, 27 February 2019. Similarly, Roshan Kishore argued that previous national security crisis shows mixed results. See, ‘Can National Security Issues Impact Electoral Outcomes?’ The Hindustan Times, 4 March 2019. And Neelanjan Sircar showed that Kargil conflict did not have uniform effect on BJP’s vote across the country. See, ‘The Gains for BJP Were Not Uniform Across All States After the Kargil War’, The Hindustan Times, 14 March 2019.

4. See, Rahul Verma, ‘Did Nationalism Override Bread and Butter Issues?’ The Times of India, 24 May 2019.

5. See, M. Golder, ‘Far Right Parties in Europe’, Annual Review of Political Science 19, 2016, pp. 477-497; C. Mudde, ‘Fighting the System? Populist Radical Right Parties and Party System Change’, Party Politics 20, 2014, pp. 217-226.

6. Our approach is similar to C. Dueck, Hard Line: The Republican Party and US Foreign Policy Since World War II. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2010.

7. See, I. Budge and D. Farlie, Explaining and Predicting Elections: Issue Effects and Party Strategies in Twenty-three Democracies. Taylor & Francis, 1983; J.R. Petrocik, ‘Issue Ownership in Presidential Elections, with a 1980 Case Study. American Journal of Political Science 40, 1996, pp. 825-850.

8. Uttam Kumar, ‘Cashing in on JNU Row: BJP Plans Nationalism Campaign for the Masses’, Hindustan Times, 17 February 2016.

9. Yogendra Yadav makes a similar point in an opinion piece he wrote for The Print. See, ‘Pulwama-Balakot Helps Modi in Polls – Issues of Farmers, Jobs, Rafale Don’t Exist Anymore’, The Print, 4 March 2019.