On the back of a widespread anti-Congress sentiment, both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have been fighting tooth and nail to rise to the top. But while AAP has propped up its anti-corruption credentials, BJP and Narendra Modi have not forgotten a pivotal play: Pakistan.
The most recent of this anti-Pakistan rhetoric was spouted by Bihar BJP leader, Giriraj Singh, who is also the party’s candidate from Nawada. “Those who want to stop Modi will soon have no place in India … because their place will be in Pakistan,” Singh boomed during a rally on April 18, 2014.
While Pakistan — despite issuing a response to Singh’s proclamations — is still looking unconcerned about hardliner Mr Narendra Modi’s likely ascension to power, deep-down Islamabad’s policy strategists are beset with fears of uncertainty about the future trajectory of the bilateral ties under the expected BJP government.
The mire is deep and complicated, since Modi is considered to be naïve on foreign policy.
Of course, Modi’s popular image in Pakistan is that of a radical Hindu leader, who is both anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan, and under whose watch the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in India took place in 2002. This negative perception in Pakistan gains further significance because of the complicated nature of Indo-Pak ties, which have mostly remained on crisis mode, particularly during the past five years.
As we head towards change of government in India, it needs to be remembered that peace dialogue between the two countries remains suspended since January 2013 and progress in ties during the two years of dialogue (2011 & 2012) was practically nil. Trade and visa liberalisation, the two much flaunted successes, have been just on the paper.
This hardly provides us with a sound platform to start dealing with a leader who has been a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) full timer pracharak (ideologue, proponent of ideas) — a background that could psychologically inhibit him from moving forward with Pakistan.
Jinnah Institute President and former Ambassador Sherry Rehman, who has remained involved in a Track-II initiative with India — the Chaophraya Dialogue, agrees that Modi’s unapologetic communalism will certainly impact policy with Pakistan. But, she wonders, how much?
So too does former Ambassador Dr Maleeha Lodhi. “Most important for Islamabad, will the next government in Delhi agree to revive the broad-based composite dialogue, suspended since early 2013? Or will it persist with an approach that limits the bandwidth of talks by cherry picking issues of India's priority?” she asks.
“Modi’s predicted rise to power is being viewed with much anxiety. His reputation as anti-Muslim and an extremist worries Pakistanis. At the same time, it also confirms the stereotype about India and the Indians,” says analyst Raza Rumi.
The worry is that the negative perceptions about Modi at home could also limit space for Islamabad to negotiate with him given that public opinion would prevent the government from making slightest of the concessions to India.
It’s not only that Pakistanis are worried about what would happen with a fundamentalist ruling next door, Indians too are concerned. Most recently, many from Bollywood joined the initiative by screenwriter Anjum Rajabali to request voters to choose a “secular party” in their constituency. Their rationale: “India's secular character is not negotiable! Not now, not ever.” Nearly 60 members of the Bollywood fraternity signed this plea, including filmmakers Vishal Bhardwaj, Imtiaz Ali, Zoya Akhtar and Kabir Khan, as well as icons such as Mahesh Bhatt, Shubha Mudgal, and Nandita Das.
Anxiety in India aside, Islamabad finds some solace in the fact that its last experience of dealing with a BJP government in Delhi was not all that bad. The last BJP government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee had the prime minister launching a major diplomatic push for normalising ties with Pakistan. The Delhi-Lahore bus service which started in February 1999 still reminds us about the steps that were then taken to improve relations in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests.
The “Lahore Declaration”, issued during Vajpayee’s visit to Pakistan, is one of the most important treaties signed between the two countries since the Simla Agreement. And more importantly, Vajpayee remained engaged with President Musharraf, after he took over in 1999, despite him being accused of orchestrating the Kargil attack.
Pakistani officials were therefore particularly encouraged to hear Modi saying that he would pursue the policies followed by his BJP predecessor, Vajpayee.
“One of the views in Pakistan is that having previously dealt with a BJP government, Pakistan might find it ‘easier’ to manage relations with India under a strong, right-wing government, not on the defensive at home on Pakistan policy and able to make diplomatic compromises,” explains Dr Lodhi.
Then there are economic opportunities for regional cooperation, which would compel Modi to toe a friendlier line with Islamabad instead of pursuing a confrontational path.
What also comforts Pakistani strategists is that Modi’s overall agenda is economic development. Accordingly, it is believed, he would be more inclined towards a more sustainable and predictable relationship with Pakistan. His image not being very positive among Muslims, he may be tempted to go an extra mile to reach out to Pakistan with a view to burnishing his image.
Despite being under the overwhelming sway of Hindutva, it needs to be remembered that during his election campaign, he tried to project himself a moderate and not a champion of the radical Hindu cause. There is also a hope that pressures of being in office would further temp down his rhetoric and the imperatives of governance will hopefully drive him towards engagement with Pakistan.
“I think Pakistan should watch the unfolding leadership transition, but not worry over — much. Incumbency has a way of sifting election polemic into moderation. That said, I do think a rightist government in New Delhi will deal with a bilateral crisis with less temperance than say, Manmohan Singh,” argues Rehman.
Dr Lodhi is, however, skeptical about any major shift in Modi’s stance. “Even if Modi's domestic economic priorities persuade him to enhance economic ties with Pakistan, his reputation for ‘muscular nationalism’ will urge him towards a harder line on contentious issues, especially Kashmir. Under Modi, even disputes regarded as low hanging fruit, such as Sir Creek, would see little progress,” she insists.
Nevertheless, it is important to keep an eye on potential flashpoints.
It goes without saying that BJP government would further pressure Pakistan for a trial of Mumbai suspects. Similarly, any misadventure by non-state actors could be met with a stronger response than what used to be the case with the Congress government. Such an eventuality would always have the possibility of degenerating into a full-scale military confrontation between the nuclear armed arch rivals.
The other issue to watch out would be Kashmir. India has traditionally been reluctant to talk about the lingering dispute, but the issue has remained on the talks table. The BJP manifesto now describes Kashmir as a “non-negotiable issue”. Pakistan could hardly be comfortable with this position.
The BJP manifesto also promises to revoke a constitutional clause that guarantees a semblance of autonomy for the occupied valley. Any move in this direction would be seen in Pakistan as changing the status of the disputed territory and could aggravate tensions.
The BJP manifesto further pledges to give up “no-first-use” policy on nuclear weapons — an announcement that was designed to tell voters that if voted into power, the BJP would get tougher with arch-rival Pakistan.
This too could have serious consequences for regional stability even though any such change would be merely symbolic. “India had practically abandoned its no-first-use policy in January 2003 when it operationalised its nuclear doctrine,” argues Dr Zafar Iqbal Cheema, an expert on strategic issues.
It's worth noting that Indian nuclear doctrine states: “However, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.” This provision is in already in contravention of the traditional view of no-first-use, in which the subscribing state commits to respond with nuclear weapons only when attacked by nukes.
Former Foreign Secretary and High Commissioner to India, Salman Bashir, stresses on persisting with “a principled approach in relations with India”. He warns that as period of uncertainty in ties could continue even after the new government is formed in Delhi.
The writer tweets @BaqirSajjad