“It was downright betrayal by China. China’s forces targeted Bihar’s soldiers. The killings will have an impact (on the Assembly elections). The message has gone down to the village folk and it’s become a big talking point,” said Yadav, who represents the Patliputra constituency. Yadav was once the closest confidant of Lalu Prasad, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) patriarch, but parted company in 2014, joined the BJP and won this seat twice in a row. He has since internalised the BJP’s ideology. “Nationalism is our party’s foundation. Nationalism and
unity heads the five articles of faith that were adopted when the BJP was founded,” said Yadav.
Of the 20 slain soldiers, 13 were from the Bihar Regiment, but five were from the state. The others were from Punjab (four), West Bengal, Jharkhand (two each), Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh (one each). Although the regiment derives its name fortuitously from Bihar because it is headquartered at Patna’s Danapur Cantonment, to the state’s politicians, the association was more than happenstance. “It enhances Bihar’s pride,” stressed a BJP MP.
On June 17, when the five bodies were flown to Patna, the BJP-Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) pulled out all the stops to convey a political message through the funeral and cremation that were conducted in the home villages of the soldiers. By then, an excerpt from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s video speech to launch the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan in Bihar circulated rapidly. Modi said: “The country is proud of the sacrifice made by our brave hearts in Ladakh. Today, when I am speaking to the people of Bihar, I will allude to the valour of the Bihar Regiment; every Bihari is proud of it.” The political reverberation was unmistakable.
Yadav was part of an assemblage at Patna’s J P International airport with senior Bihar ministers, MPs, and Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, the Opposition leader, to receive the caskets.
One of the soldiers, Havildar Sunil Kumar, was from Ram Kripal Yadav’s constituency. “The funeral procession from his ancestral home at Tarapur village to the cremation ground in Maner saw a record turnout,” recalled Yadav.
The BJP’s youth wing had partially mobilised young men, who raised slogans calling for the boycott of Chinese products. Two ministers each, a majority from the BJP, were tasked to attend similar occasions on June 18 in the home villages of the other servicepersons. “It was widely televised. A solemn moment acquired the air of a grand ritual,” said a former associate of Nitish Kumar, Bihar chief minister.
Will the BJP and JD(U) subsume the tragedy in their election campaigns? “We don’t have to propagate anything. People are doing it for us,” said Nagendra, the Bihar BJP’s general secretary (organisation). A Patna-based political observer partly corroborated Nagendra’s claim and said, “When I visited villages after the border confrontation, the talk was PM Modi showed
China its place by getting Russia on India’s side. I found later that they were BJP followers and their sentiments don’t necessarily reflect the popular mood.”
Nagendra’s colleagues moderated the pitch. A senior functionary said: “No election is fought on a single issue. Nationalism is always an ideological plank but we will talk about the work done by the Bihar government and the Centre, especially during the lockdown wherein a huge sum of money was transferred to all the stakeholders. The China confrontation will be a theme but the contours of communication have not been etched.”
In the BJP, there’s a view that had Pakistan been the adversary, instead of China, it would be a win-win situation again. “Then, we would have gone to town saying we will plant our tricolour on Lahore’s soil. It would have even become a handle to paint Muslims in a corner and make the election communal. With China, we can’t take liberties,” said a party source.
Rajiv Ranjan, the JD(U) spokesperson, said: “PM Modi understood the feeling that if martyrdom is linked with nationalism and the pride of the Bihar Regiment, it enhances Bihar’s image and morale. But there’s no challenge to the BJP-JD(U) combine, regardless of what happened in Ladakh. There’s a leadership vacuum in the RJD and Tejashwi Yadav has no credibility.”
JD(U) sources conceded that the BJP’s “Bihari martyrdom” line will give the coalition an edge or “at least help us combat anti-incumbency if the Opposition makes an issue of Nitish’s governance”.
A former Nitish associate blamed the Opposition for its inability to challenge the BJP on the China killings. He said" “Rahul Gandhi attacked Modi sharply on the China issue. Some of his tweets are pertinent but there is nobody in the Congress or the Opposition to take his message down to the ground and answer the BJP. Some Congressmen think Rahul has put the party on the defensive again on nationalism and patriotism.”