By Arati R. Jerath

Diplomats in New Delhi had their invitations to have a ringside view of the Gujarat elections withdrawn abruptly without any explanation

Western diplomats posted in New Delhi are puzzled. Several months ago, embassies of countries of the European Union received an invitation from the Gujarat government asking them to send representatives to visit the state during the assembly election as observers of the poll process. It was supposed to be an invitation to watch Indian democracy in action. The hidden message was a ringside view of a demonstration of strength in Narendra Modi’s home state.

Suddenly, a little over a week before the first phase of polling, the embassies were “de-invited’’, as one diplomatic source put it. In other words, the invitation to observe the Gujarat elections at close quarters was withdrawn abruptly without any explanation.

The cancellation has naturally set off speculation in view of reports and opinion polls suggesting that the BJP may not do as well as expected. In fact, one opinion poll has shown the BJP and Congress in dead heat, which means the result could go either way.

So, is the BJP worried about its performance on Modi-Shah’s home turf? Possibly. Otherwise why would the powers-that-be in Gujarat fight shy of foreign observers monitoring the ongoing polls?

Intrigued by this development, at least two European countries have decided to send a team of diplomats at their own expense to check out the mood in Gujarat. They will be filing their reports to their home governments as the poll process moves ahead.

Army, foreign office in tizzy
The controversy created by army chief General Bipin Rawat on India’s 2015 operations in Myanmar has both the army and foreign office in a tizzy. At a book release function recently, Rawat spoke in detail about the operations in which the Indian army had crossed into Myanmar territory to flush out militants who had killed 15 Indian soldiers. Rawat described it as a message to militants hiding in other countries.

Apparently, the foreign office is upset that the chief’s comments could damage India’s relations with Myanmar. Indian diplomats had worked hard to repair the ties after the 2015 operations. They are worried that the chief’s remarks could undo their hard work. It is said that the foreign office has conveyed its concerns to the defence ministry and to the army.

The rap from the foreign office has put army circles on the defensive. On behalf of the chief, army sources have been telling media persons that the chief didn’t reveal any secrets about the Myanmar operations. They claim that whatever Rawat said was contained in the book that was released at the function. The book was written by former journalist and defence expert Nitin Gokhale.

The army seems to have a way of putting its foot in its mouth. While defending the chief, it has been putting out the story that Gokhale’s book containing details of the Myanmar operations was vetted and “cleared’’ by the National Security Advisor’s office. In other words, the army chief’s comments were “authorised’’ at the highest level, so to speak.

Rawat’s defenders have blurred the lines between a journalistic account of a sensitive operation and an official statement. Unlike a journalist, when the army chief speaks, he talks on behalf of the government.

Taking toll of Modi’s duties
The Gujarat poll campaign has taken its toll of Narendra Modi’s official duties. And the biggest victim has been the armed forces which the BJP claims to venerate for their nationalist service to the country.

This year, Modi skipped the functions to marked Air Force day in October and Navy Day in December. Both times, he was away in Gujarat campaigning for the assembly elections.

Defence forces are taught not to reveal their feelings but the absence of the PM was noticed by the men in uniform who attended the receptions to mark what is a red letter day for the air force and the navy.

PMs have traditionally made it a point never to miss these receptions hosted by the defence chiefs. And defence officers look forward to shaking hands with the PM and getting photographed.

But for politicians, fighting an election is the same as fighting a war is for the defence forces. Modi is clear about his priorities.

Two leading news agencies are under fire from the government for crossing red lines drawn by officials. One of these agencies, which specializes in foreign office coverage, has been knocked off the media list of the ministry of external affairs.

Consequently, this agency is no longer invited to official and unofficial briefings or media receptions. It does not receive press releases via Whats App either. It has been completely shut out.

The other agency has been warned that government subscriptions to its wire services will be terminated. This means a huge loss in revenue for the agency which is now in a flap. If the government goes through with its threat, the agency could well be forced to suspend operations for some time. The pressure is intense although well wishers are trying to bring about a compromise.

‘110 Club’ springs up
In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, there was a “160 Club’’ in the BJP. This was a group of leaders who were convinced that the party under Modi’s leadership would not cross 160 seats in the Lok Sabha. In fact, they were said to be hoping for this scenario because in such a situation, Modi would have to step aside and allow someone else to be the prime minister of a BJP-led coalition government. They reasoned that a tough leader like Modi would not be acceptable to coalition partners.

Now, as the Gujarat polls nears completion, a “110 Club’’ has sprung up. This a group of BJP leaders who are spreading the word that the party will get less than 110 seats in the state assembly election, marking a defeat for the Modi-Shah duo which has been boasting of 150 seats.

It is interesting that the latest opinion polls have also released figures that show the BJP hovering at the 110 mark. Is this a mere coincidence or is something afoot behind the scenes?