Mainstreaming Modi

February 16, 2014

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IN February 2002, 2,000 Muslim men, women and children were killed by Hindu mobs in India’s Gujrat state. A Special Report by Human Rights Watch concluded that: “The attacks on Muslims throughout the state were planned well in advance … and organised with extensive police participation and in close cooperation with officials of the BJP state government”.

There is considerable evidence that Gujrat’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, was personally complicit in this officially sanctioned pogrom. He was later charged with this crime but, in a controversial decision, cleared by an Indian court. Yet, no one doubts his involvement. He has never expressed regret for this massacre.

With a BJP government ruling in New Delhi, none of the usual defenders of human rights demanded that Mr Modi be held accountable for this mass murder. There was no call for a criminal commission, such as those established for similar crimes in Bosnia and Rwanda. Pakistan’s was the lone voice at the UN asking for accountability for the Gujrat atrocities. However, Western governments did terminate direct contact with the sullied chief minister. And, the US denied him a visa to visit America.

This Western distancing is, unfortunately, about to end. It was reported last week that the US ambassador in New Delhi has requested a meeting with Mr Modi. The representatives of the EU and other Western states have already met him.

The turnaround has been brought about obviously by Mr Modi’s selection as the leader of the BJP which is favoured to win in the forthcoming Indian elections. Disenchantment with the Congress party government’s economic policies and performance, and Modi’s reputed credentials as an effective and business-friendly administrator, have enhanced his appeal for Western leaders and corporations. Modi is thus being mainstreamed.

Modi’s rehabilitation and possible leadership of India has potentially serious implications for Pakistan. No one can forget his declamation to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh militants in 2002: “Hindu militancy … will wipe Pakistan off the face of the world”. Nor is it irrelevant that the Gujrat massacre took place during the India-Pakistan military confrontation of 2002.

Although Modi has moderated his anti-Muslim rhetoric, no doubt to widen his national appeal, he and the BJP could revert to the Hindu hardline if needed to secure their core fundamentalist base. In any event, the rhetoric against Pakistan could be ratcheted up to drum up the ‘nationalist’ vote. The ruling Congress may feel obliged to match this ‘winning’ tactic, leading to an early crisis in India-Pakistan relations.

The danger of such a crisis would become wider and more sustained were Modi and the BJP to actually win at the polls. Despite the toned down rhetoric, in today’s India, anti-Pakistan belligerence is alive and well. The exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from the Indian Cricket League and the recent disruption of a performance by Pakistani musicians in Mumbai are the overt signals of such sentiment. Hindu supremism is also ascendant. Last week, Penguin India, was obliged to destroy all unsold copies of a book The Hindus: An Alternative History after right-wing activists complained it denigrated their religion.

A BJP victory, under Modi, is likely to reinforce these tendencies. Pakistan may face the rising Hindu fundamentalist rhetoric, but Muslims in India may again bear the brunt of its zeal. This is particularly true in India-held Kashmir where ongoing protests against Indian rule are likely to be even more ruthlessly repressed.

However, unlike 2002, the Muslims in India are less quiescent today. They have been infected by the global rise of “political Islam”. Some Indian Muslim groups have, according to Indian reports, resorted to terrorist violence. If Hindu militancy asserts itself against Muslims in the wake of a Modi victory, it is likely to be met with a violent response.

Inevitably, Pakistan will be blamed for any act of terrorism in India, unleashing another crisis in bilateral relations. Perhaps, having learnt the danger inherent in confronting a nuclear Pakistan in 2002, even Modi may refrain from flexing India’s military muscle. Yet, it cannot be ruled out that some hardliners may wish to test Pakistan’s mettle.

Pakistan’s diplomacy can take some pre-emptive actions to avert such a crisis.

First, it would be wise not to take a public position against Modi or the BJP in the run-up to the Indian elections. This would only enhance the chances of their victory.

Second, Pakistan should quietly curb the new Western enthusiasm for Modi. The West should be made aware of the dangers mentioned here. Nor are Modi’s economic credentials well-established. Gujrat’s growth has accentuated economic and social inequalities. The BJP’s ‘nationalism’ will prevent it from offering the economic openings desired by the West.

Third, Islamabad should mobilise economic and political support for the Kashmiris and Indian Muslims through Islamic institutions, particularly the OIC and the Islamic Development Bank, and civil society groups. This could circumvent economic and political discrimination against them, prevent the cycle of Hindu-Muslim violence and bring humanitarian help where needed.

Fourth, despite its preoccupation with the TTP and Baloch insurgencies, Pakistan should review and update its plans for defence in the event of a crisis with India. Such plans should consider all possible scenarios.

Fifth, Pakistan should open a security dialogue with India to develop ‘rules of the road’ and confidence building measures that would be useful to avoid a conflict in the event that political relations take a turn for the worse under India’s next government.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.