The BJP’s ads during the 2008 Mumbai attacks expose its hypocrisy on questioning national security

In contrast to their response to the opposition's questions about the Pulwama attack, neither the BJP nor Narendra Modi had bothered about the sensitivity of criticising the United Progressive Alliance government in the midst of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Prashanth Vishwanathan/ Bloomberg / Getty Images
Elections 2024
15 March, 2019

On revisiting statements made by leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party during the four days that Mumbai reeled under terror attacks in November 2008, it becomes clear that the party is not new to politicising national security. The attack began on the night of 26 November, in a siege that targeted landmark spots in the city, and engaged security forces till the morning of 29 November. On the first day of the attack, the BJP had assured the nation that it stands with the United Progressive Alliance government in the “full-scale war” on India. But within 24 hours thereafter, the BJP reneged on its undertaking and Narendra Modi became the face of the party’s about-turn on the terror attacks.

On 28 November, the BJP launched a campaign against the Congress-led UPA government to exploit the growing public outrage against the Mumbai attacks. Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time, travelled to Mumbai to address the media from outside the Oberoi Trident Hotel—one of the sites of the attacks—and criticised the government’s failure to prevent the attack. Modi’s speech came ahead of two state elections—Delhi and Rajasthan were going to polls on 29 November and 4 December, respectively. That day, the BJP also issued advertisements in national newspapers that harnessed the Mumbai attacks for electoral gains. With a splash of red against a black background—starkly signifying the blood-spilling in Mumbai—the advertisement read, “Brutal Terror Strikes at Will. Weak Government. Unwilling and Incapable. Fight Terror. Vote BJP.”

On 28 November 2008, the BJP issued advertisements in national newspapers that harnessed the Mumbai attacks for electoral gains.

In the aftermath of the suicide bombing in Pulwama on 14 February, which killed at least 40 Central Reserve Police Force jawans, and the subsequent Indian Air Force strikes near Balakot, a town in Pakistan, the BJP appears to have fallen back into old habits. Several party leaders have referred to the slain CRPF jawans or the air strikes in subsequent public speeches and electoral campaigns for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Yet, when the opposition accused the party of blatantly politicising the sacrifices of the armed forces, Modi and the BJP have fired one volley after another in response, conveniently glossing over the pattern of such conduct in their unseemly past.

On 1 March this year, Modi delivered a speech at Kanyakumari, a coastal town in Tamil Nadu, that illustrates the BJP’s amnesia about its response to the Mumbai attacks. “A few parties, guided by Modi-hatred have started hating India,” Modi said. The Indian government had claimed that the Balakot air strikes destroyed training camps of the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, which had claimed responsibility for the Pulwama bombing. But subsequent ground reports challenged these claims, prompting opposition leaders to ask for proof of the impact of the strikes. Referring to these opposition leaders, Modi added, “They are the same people whose statements are being happily quoted in parliament of Pakistan and in the radio of Pakistan. I want to ask them—do you support our armed forces or suspect them?”

But neither the BJP nor Modi had bothered about the sensitivity of criticising the UPA government in the midst of the Mumbai attacks, while counter-terror operations were still underway. In sharp contrast to the opposition’s response after the Pulwama attack, wherein parties largely refrained from questioning the Modi government about the intelligence failure that led to the attack, Modi had shot off a letter to Manmohan Singh, who was the prime minister at the time, on 27 November 2008. He suggested that Singh should convene a meeting of all chief ministers, particularly of coastal and border states, to review internal-security arrangements. He also pointed to India’s vulnerable marine security, highlighting that the point of entry before the terror attacks was on the Mumbai coast.

Modi’s letter was made public only a day after he wrote it—perhaps because the BJP was speaking in tandem with the UPA until then. That day, LK Advani, who was then the leader of opposition and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, stated before the media, “Maintenance of peace, tranquility, communal harmony and patriotic unity must be our highest priority.”

But the very next day, the BJP issued its advertisements. In one of its Hindi advertisements, the party stated, “Those who have been martyred, remember their sacrifices.” Another advertisement contained an open letter by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former prime minister and BJP stalwart. “The challenge thrown by terror has to be met together,” Vajpayee wrote. “Maintaining traditional brotherhood and peace, we must elect a government that can fight terror tooth and nail.” Between projecting a united front against terror and exploiting the mayhem in Mumbai for votes, the BJP had made its choice clear to the public—effectively seeking to divide Indians united in their sorrow and horror along party lines.

The campaign against the UPA’s failure to prevent the terror attacks still required a face to spearhead it—and Modi obliged. He arrived in Mumbai from Gujarat on 28 November, and in his speech at the Oberoi Trident, Modi told journalists that a speech Singh had delivered the previous day, in which he addressed the nations after the attacks, was “disappointing.” He also informed the media about the letter that he wrote to Singh, and repeated its contents, including those relating to India’s marine security. No one commented on how the Pakistani parliament or radio reacted to Modi’s remarks.

Modi accused the UPA of ignoring his warnings about Pakistan’s sinister manoeuvres in Indian waters, noting that the Pakistani marines had been arresting Gujarati fishermen and seizing their boats even after releasing their owners. “I had pointed to the government about the possibility of the boats being misused,” Modi said. “Unfortunately, this is what has happened in Mumbai.” But those who have cited the intelligence failure as a factor behind the Pulwama attack have been met with the BJP and its followers pouncing upon them, questioning their patriotism and support for the armed forces.

In his speech, Modi also announced that the Gujarat government had donated Rs 1 crore to the Maharashtra government to distribute among the relatives of the police personnel killed in the attacks. Hemant Karkare, who was the head of the anti-terrorism squad of the Maharashtra Police at the time, was one among them. Despite Karkare’s family members declining requests to meet anyone, Modi had visited Karkare’s residence to offer his condolences to the family.

Several media outlets pointed to the bitter irony of Modi and other BJP leaders paying homage to Karkare. As the chief of the anti-terror squad, Karkare had unraveled the alleged role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists in bomb blasts that took place in Malegaon, Maharashtra, in September 2008. The disclosure had provoked several BJP luminaries to accuse Karkare of falsely implicating the RSS at the behest of the UPA government.

Karkare’s death did not restrain BJP leaders from claiming that the UPA’s obsession with proving the existence of saffron terror was a factor in the Mumbai attacks. On 28 November, Advani noted in a statement to the press, “It now appears that a mobile phone with a terrorist is of Pakistani origin. This reinforces the fact that intelligence agencies’ energy is being diverted to nail the so-called Hindu terror which evidently enabled the Mumbai attackers’ plot go undetected.”

The previous day, Singh had extended an invitation to Advani for both of them to jointly visit Mumbai and address the nation that day to demonstrate the unity among the Indian political class. But the joint visit never took place. Advani explained in his statement: “The PM had suggested that we go to Mumbai together. I had readily agreed, deferring my travel plans. But in the afternoon, I was told that it would be better to go on Friday [28 November] as the commando operations were not over.” It was a subtle attempt at shifting the blame for the aborted visit on Singh. Yet, it is hard to imagine Singh taking Advani with him after the BJP issued advertisements to exploit the public anger generated by the Mumbai attacks, and after Modi lashed out against the UPA’s failure to curb terrorism.

On the tenth anniversary of the Mumbai attacks, the financial daily Mint published a report that revealed the story behind the BJP’s decision to rescind its undertaking to stand with the UPA government. Quoting a senior BJP leader and member of parliament, who requested anonymity, the article noted that Advani had “apparently deployed” Modi to “take an aggressive anti-Pakistan line and Hindutva image.” The senior BJP leader said, “None of our senior leaders, including Advaniji, wanted to come down to Mumbai so quickly and take a position right there. They did it in Delhi, but someone had to be seen in Mumbai.” The BJP leader added that the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde “reached out to Modiji who readily agreed to come.”

In hindsight, Modi, Advani and the BJP did, indeed, seem to be playing to a script. A few hours before the election campaign in Delhi wound up, on 27 November, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Vijay Kumar Malhotra referred to the Malegaon investigation to claim it was an effort at discovering “imaginary agents of terrorism.” Malhotra added, “Instead of keeping the gaze on the real terrorists out to halt our progress … efforts have been directed to discover Hindu terrorists, leading the investigating agencies nowhere.”

In Rajasthan, too, the BJP sought to exploit the Mumbai attacks to harvest votes. An India Today report published on 29 November 2008 noted of the party’s plans to burn “terrorism effigies” in all assembly constituencies in the state to protest against the central government’s inability to prevent terror strikes—I was unable to verify whether these plans were eventually carried out. There was also a concerted attempt to link the terror attacks to the Congress’ alleged pro-minority position. For instance, the 29 November India Today report quotes Ramdas Aggarwal, a senior BJP leader in the state: “Congress has a history of appeasement. They will ruin the country by soft-pedaling on terror.”

In comparison to the manner in which Modi, Advani and the BJP exploited the tragedy of the Mumbai attacks for votes, the opposition demonstrated a greater degree of solidarity with the government in the crisis triggered by the Pulwama attack. It is hard to tell whether people appreciate the relative maturity that the opposition has displayed over the last one month. But the BJP’s antics during the Mumbai attacks had apparently not impressed Delhi and Rajasthan, both of which voted the Congress to power that year.