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Will Prime Minister Modi make peace with Pakistan?

January 07, 2014

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Because of the Gujrat-pogrom, Modi does not cut the right figure for leading a public and popular act to end the Indo-Pak conflict. -File Photo
Because of the Gujrat-pogrom, Modi does not cut the right figure for leading a public and popular act to end the Indo-Pak conflict. -File Photo

On May 20, 2002 Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani said India would go ahead with a full scale war with Pakistan and “win the proxy war like we did in 1971”. Two days later, Prime Minister Vajpayee visited the front lines in Jammu delivering a chilling message to the troops that “the time has come for a decisive battle, and we will have a sure victory in this battle.”

The two armies had already lined up at the borders with finger on trigger; they could feel each other’s breath on their faces. That was the peak of the crisis triggered by a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament building in Delhi in December 2001. India ordered a full scale mobilisation of its combat troops. 9/11 had happened just weeks ago, war was in the air.

India and Pakistan had never been this close to war since 1971, when they actually waged one. India had mobilised 500,000 troops, while Pakistan matched it by 300,000. Some say this was the biggest military mobilisation in the world after the WWII, barring the 1961 US-Cuba standoff.

India was then being ruled by its right-wing Bhartia Janta Party for the first time. The party had formed government for the first time, heading a fractious alliance after the February 1998 elections had thrown out a hung Parliament. The government collapsed in less than two years but BJP returned stronger in the next elections held in September-October 1999, extending its stint in power for over four years.

When BJP had taken over the government in India in March 1998, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan had already completed the first year of his second government. He had a whooping two-third majority in Parliament. His party had its own government in Punjab and coalition governments in the other three provinces.

The second BJP government took oath on October 13, 1999, just a day after General Pervez Musharraf overthrew the government of Nawaz Sharif. Since the Musharraf coup played late into the night of October 12 (he addressed the nation at 2:50 am on October 13), BJP’s second government and the General’s rule in Pakistan practically started the same day.

BJP’s time in office was eventful from the point of view of India-Pakistan relations. It decided to conduct nuclear tests at Pokhran in its third month in office. Pakistan replied with its own tests the same month. With both countries now officially nuclear and considered at par, PM Vajpayee crossed the Wagha border in a bus in February 1999 and signed a peace declaration in Lahore. A seemingly strong government in Pakistan and a welcoming one in Delhi made peace a possibility like never before.

But war broke out at Kargil in Kashmir in May 1999, just three months after the Lahore Declaration and the two countries went back to the same old war-mongering. Later, in December the same year, a militant group hijacked an Indian plane which landed in Kandahar, Afghanistan then being ruled by the Taliban. The hijackers succeeded in forcing the BJP government to release known terrorists like Masood Azhar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and others. This pushed relations between the two countries to a very low level. Then in 2001-02, BJP’s second stint, the two countries went so close to a full-scale war that most of the world’s capitals panicked and went into emergency mode.

BJP ruled India from March 1998 to May 2004 and it demonstrated a remarkable affinity to both war and peace with Pakistan. During its tenure, the two countries swung between the two extremes and went so close to both that they seemed at a hand’s stretch. But we came back from the brink and missed both, luckily the war and sorrowfully the peace for a host of, and entirely different, reasons.

If the BJP forms the government after the Lok Sabha elections to be held in April-May 2014, will the relations of the two countries again go on a war and peace binge? What makes the situation more intriguing is that Nawaz Sharif is back in power in Pakistan and placed quite comfortably in the new democratic setup.

The BJP government’s military mobilisation, named by India as Operation Parakram, in the wake of the December 2001 terrorist attack had quietly ended in June 2002; there were many coolants.

The US had just initiated its war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan was its frontline ally. The US did not want Pakistan to divert its forces away from the western border and knew well that it was only possible if there was peace on its eastern border. So, the US and the west developed a direct stake in India-Pakistan peace and prevailed over them.

The military mobilisation was costly. According to some estimates, it cost India US$ 3.3 billion and Pakistan US$ 1.4 billion (or a full US$ 4.7 billion to the poor of the two countries) and this was only a run up to the war.

Moreover, the new economic paradigm adopted by India, which rested heavily on foreign direct investments, was just a decade old. As India was cautiously opening up its markets, most of the joint ventures of multinational companies were as yet in infancy. War was bound to have a negative impact on the economic front, especially when it was supposed to directly hurt the western strategic interests in the region.

There was also debate about Pakistan’s state-actors-vs-non-state-actors paradox. If state actors are punished for the deeds of non-state actors, who will be strengthened within Pakistan? Is the act then worth the risks, given the fact that the two countries possess nuclear weapons as well?

So, the crisis ended when the US was able to extract from Gen Musharraf a statement to the effect that it will ‘permanently’ end infiltrations into India.

The BJP learned an expensive lesson about the futility of war. It was ingrained well and reflected in its response to the Mumbai attack of 2008 which was much more lethal and brazen than the Parliament attack of 2001. The party was now in ‘the comfortable slot’ of being the opposition party but only called for a ‘controlled military action’ against Pakistan. That too was meant more for local consumption than to be translated into real action.

One can be sure then that however ignitable the BJP may be, or may seem to be, it understands what exactly fire can and cannot do. No war is good news. But that’s only half of the India-Pakistan story. The whole region has waiting since ages for the other half. Can BJP make peace with Pakistan?

A good part of the peace overture of BJP’s earlier government can certainly be attributed to the acumen and the gentleman repute of its leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is no more there. The party is now contesting elections under the leadership of its Gujrat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi.

Modi has two claims to fame, one is the Gujrat pogrom and the other is his so-called Gujrat model of development.

The Gujrat pogrom or the anti-Muslim riots in the state of Gujrat happened in February-March 2002 – that is in the middle of Operation Parakram, the great Indo-Pak military mobilisation. Narendra Modi was heading the BJP’s government in Gujrat. The riots that took 1000 to 2000 lives are seen as another major event in the regions treacherous communal history.

Modi has faced a range of charges from plotting and abetting the riots to not doing enough to prevent them. The courts have, however, not been able to pin him down, but in popular perceptions he is identified not only as the person responsible for the Gujrat killings but also as an ardent anti-Muslim and communalist politician.

In a July 2013 interview when asked whether he regretted the anti-Muslim Gujrat riots of 2002, Modi quipped:

... If we are driving a car … (and) a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course, it is. If I’m a Chief Minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.

A number of western countries have denied entry to Modi for his alleged role in the Gujrat killings. Some have lifted the ban lately but the US insists on not allowing him in. US authorities have recently arrested a senior Indian diplomat on charges of making false declarations on the visa application for her maid. Though, it has no direct link with the issue being discussed here, it does demonstrate ‘the power’ of the US authorities that who have prevailed despite condemnations by former diplomats and politicians.

The Gujrat pogrom is used by militant groups in Pakistan, like Jamaat-ud-Dawa, to whip up anti-India, anti-Hindu sentiments among their cadres and sympathisers. They present it is the latest and undeniable proof of Hindu cruelty towards Muslims. Pictures of charred bodies ostensibly of Muslim victims of Gujrat adorn their banners. Modi makes a perfect Hindu effigy that is burnt at the end of each of their rallies.

So, can Modi ride a bus to cross Wagha to meet Sharif at his Raiwind palace?

L K Advani was also implicated for a role in the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 but that did not bar Vajpayee or Nawaz Sharif to take a peace initiative. Can we then assume that riots tainted Modi won’t face a hurdle either?

I am afraid Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will find it a bit difficult to shake hands with Modi even if he comes clad in a green kurta, instead of a saffron one. Sharif might put too much at stake if he dares to do so, or so it seems at the moment, given the current balance of power among and within various state and non-state actors in Pakistan.

Considering the recent backtracking by his government on important diplomatic appointments, it is evident that Sharif will not poke into the beehive. Another hard pre-condition for him will be to bring Imran Khan on board because if PTI decides to stand against the initiative, Sharif will risk losing some turf to him in its power base, Punjab. Add to this, the complexity of the situation at the western border which too, is a vicious mix of state and non-state actors; at a time when the US is withdrawing from the region. The uncertainties of the western side will cast a long shadow on the east side.

Modi himself might face a somewhat similar situation at home with the far right pressing for some tough pre-conditions for talks with Pakistan.

Because of the Gujrat-pogrom, Modi does not cut the right figure for leading a public and popular act to end the Indo-Pak conflict. He has a negative aura and carries heavy baggage. He will probably have to find his double to do the job. Can the other Modi, the Gujrat-Model one, fill in and pull out some tricks?

His model rests on attracting and facilitating large capital inflows and undertaking mega projects that make ‘development’ look sexy. (Interestingly, the ruling party in Pakistan shares the same percepts about development.) What could the same approach do in the context of India-Pakistan relations? I think it will be difficult to achieve any major improvements in the investment environ in the immediate future, as investors take into considerations a lot of other factors, besides governmental agreements, before actually venturing into a new market. Do we then end up with the lackluster CBMs like the enlargement of the list of tradable commodities, while the major discourse in both the countries remain dominated by the anti-each other sloganeering.

With Modi in saddle, war may not become a probability but chances of peace do not brighten either.