The directive of the Election Commission to political parties and candidates not to use the symbols, pictures and words of the military and paramilitary forces is an important move to ensure that the armed forces and their operations do not become electoral weapons. There was a similar order during the earlier elections after the commission had received complaints from some ex-servicemen organisations that defence forces serve the nation and are above politics.
But the latest order comes as countrywide posters have sprung up using images of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and of the Indian Air Force planes involved in the air strikes in Pakistan recently. Delhi BJP president Manoj Tiwari was criticised for wearing army uniform and attending a political party meeting claiming he was expressing solidarity with the armed forces. Even the Indian cricket team members who wore military camouflage caps on the field at Ranchi had done it without authorisation from the Defence Ministry and a needless controversy arose.
Even though military symbols get prohibited and may attract action of the Election Commission, national security issues and the recent actions of the army, air force and CRPF have already been part of heated political discussion with both the ruling BJP and opposition Congress attacking each other. They are trading charges of politicising Pulwama attack and the subsequent surgical strikes. Issues of patriotism are sought to be appropriated in different ways.
As the campaign heats up, the BJP has promised that it would show who is strong in responding to cross-border terrorism and who is weak. The Congress has raked up the response of the earlier BJP government to the 1999 Indian Airlines flight hijacking and the release of Masood Azhar, who is reportedly the mastermind of the Pulwama attack last month. The Commission cannot prevent a strong discussion on military issues, including the Rafale aircraft deal, which has dominated political debate for the last one year.
A debate even among political parties is how much the Pulwama and Balakot air strikes would influence voters. The use of military strength has happened several times since the country attained independence. The first military action happened soon after independence when insurgents supported by Pakistan entered Kashmir Valley and India had to airlift troops to repel them. But since the general elections were held only four years later, the issue did not have a big impact either way in the 1952 general elections.
When Chinese troops made a sudden incursion into Indian territory in 1962 winter, the general elections had been held earlier that year. By the time the next general election came in 1967, there were several developments including the death of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964, the war with Pakistan next year and the death of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966. However, when the poll results came the Congress party for the first time did not get a one-third majority, as opposition had grown stronger by then.
The biggest war of independent India happened by the end of 1971, when Indian troops helped the liberation of East Pakistan which became independent Bangladesh. India had dominated Pakistan on land, on air and in the seas. But the general election of 1971 had been held earlier and Indira Gandhi had already swept the polls on the 'garibi hatao' (eradicate poverty) slogan.
The next military confrontation of significance was repelling Pakistani intrusion into the Siachen Glacier in 1985. Then also the general elections had concluded in January that year and the issue that dominated was the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the separatist violence in Punjab and north India.
The 1999 general elections happened after the caretaker government of Atal Behari Vajpayee succeeded in repelling the Pakistani intruders in the heights of Kargil, and the NDA earned a comfortable majority. Two major acts of terrorism -- hijacking of Indian airlines flight to Kandahar in 1999 and the attack on Parliament in 2001 -- happened during the rule of Vajpayee. The government lost the general elections in 2004 for multiple reasons.
While some of the wars were military successes, it is to be seen whether the Pulwama terrorist attack and the consequent air battles become the dominant issue. But using military symbols in campaign can result in a rap on the knuckles by the Election Commission.