Is the Modi Effect waning? (What Jammu and Jharkhand tell us)

The recent state elections in Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand went well for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but the results have also sparked speculation as to whether the Narendra Modi effect is beginning to wane. Congress Party MP Rajeev Satav seems to think so (and was retweeted by Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal):

If only things were so simple.

Take Jharkhand. As Satav says the BJP’s vote share dropped about 9 percentage points between the general election in April-May 2014 and the state assembly election in November-December 2014. But that’s not unexpected: the chart below shows the BJP has lost 7-9 percentage points in vote share between national and state elections held in close succession since 2004.

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This is also true of state assembly constituencies won (see chart below). In both 2009 and 2014, the BJP in Jharkhand won 19-20 more state assembly segments in national elections than it did in the state elections that followed a few months later. Note that 2004/05 is an exception partly because the BJP stood alone in the 2004 parliamentary election but allied with the Janata Dal-United in 2005 for the state election.

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This pattern occurs presumably because many Jharkand voters chose to vote for the BJP in national elections but switched to a regional party such as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha that seemed a more viable option in state politics.

The BJP’s position in Jammu appears unchanged between the national and state elections. While it’s true that the party’s overall vote tally in Jammu and Kashmir has fallen, its grip on Jammu hasn’t really weakened. The BJP won 24 assembly segments (in the Jammu and Udhampur parliamentary constituencies) in the general election, and won 25 assembly seats in Jammu in the subsequent state election.

There is therefore no real evidence to suggest that the Modi effect (or anti-Congress sentiment) has waned either in Jammu or Jharkhand.

An aggressive Indian border stance would play into the Pakistan Army’s hands

It’s no surprise that the escalation of cross-border tensions in the midst of two important state elections has led Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other officials to issue tough statements to Pakistan. However there is also some evidence that the government is actually considering a change in its current stance of letting officers on the ground respond to ceasefire violations as they see fit, more or less proportionately, to one in which it escalates violence more readily.

Business Standard Consulting Editor Ajai Shukla describes army thinking thus:

With Indian posts on the LoC better constructed and more heavily armed than Pakistan’s, an escalation of firing imposes disproportionate costs on the Pakistan Army. The BSF too has been instructed to retaliate strongly. New Delhi’s decision not to call for a flag meeting underlines its conviction that the military cost will soon become too high for Pakistan.

The Economic Times reports that:

…the Pakistan Army has now given India a chance to do what it wanted to do for a long time – target and destroy permanent defences that were aiding in infiltration.

This sort of talk is understandable if meant as a warning to Pakistan, but any strategy aimed at stopping cross-border militant infiltration is essentially trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

On the face of it, it does seem that the border had been steadily heating up:

The data I located are similar, and show a discernible spike in 2013, but the casualty figures are much lower, with an average of one Indian fatality and eight Indian wounded per year between 2010 and 2013. Also note that the available data appear to exclude Indian ceasefire violations, if any:

Chart 1: Pakistani ceasefire violations along the Line-of-Control

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There does seem to be a discernible increase. Even so, ceasefire violations at this level are strategically meaningless unless they are married to a specific objective. The most likely such goal would be to give cover to cross-border militant infiltration aimed at stirring up trouble in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

The former commander of the Srinagar-based XV Corps Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain believes that Pakistani troops have targeted the international border, rather than the Line-of-Control, this time round because “this is the best ground for infiltration and immediate targeting of suitable objectives in a very short time frame”.

But what do the data tell us?

Chart 2: Insurgent infiltration attempts in Jammu and Kashmir

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It’s pretty clear that infiltration attempts into J&K by armed insurgents have sharply declined over the past decade, judging from Home Ministry data (sourced from here and here). One dip occurred following the 9/11 attacks in the US as a result of which Pakistan was forced to reduce support to armed groups in Kashmir. The second dip occurred in 2004 after the November 2003 ceasefire with Pakistan which made it harder to infiltrate fighters across the border using covering fire. Furthermore, the rise in ceasefire violations since 2011 has led to no increase in crossborder incursions.

This fall in insurgent infiltration attempts has also contributed to an unambiguous decline in militant violence in the state (data from South Asia Terrorism Portal):

Chart 3: Fatalities from insurgent violence in Jammu and Kashmir 

The reduction in violence in J&K undoubtedly has many causes, but a decline in Pakistan-aided infiltration is clearly an important contributor. Consequently, a more aggressive posture on the border might play well to domestic audiences and TV channels, but would do nothing for political stability in J&K. On the contrary, if Pakistan does in fact intend for its border provocations to facilitate the movement of armed fighters into J&K, a “tougher” Indian policy would simply play into its hands (look here for a different argument that reaches the same conclusion).

An alternative explanation of Pakistan’s border behaviour draws on Pakistani domestic politics and on the power tussle between the military and civilian leadership in that country. But that’s for another time.