HOW many conspiracy theories can one F-16 generate? The US news report indicating that India did not shoot down a Pakistani F-16 during post-Pulwama skirmishes has had the Indian interweb abuzz. Has the US falsely leaked this information to keep up F-16 sales? Where’s the missing war head? Is the US counting the F-16s from Jordan? Pakistanis, meanwhile, are feeling vindicated.
The news also raised questions about Modi’s electoral prospects, with analysts suggesting the Indian prime minister’s F-16 fantasy could cost the BJP votes in the upcoming elections. Pakistan would be mistaken to place itself at the centre of those. The polls in many ways are an existential evaluation of what India is — a secular or religious nationalist polity — and what Modi has to offer, given that his promises of economic uplift and good governance have not panned out.
Within this broader context, however, the Pakistan angle can clarify key questions about the BJP and its current political and ideological positioning under Modi. This point is well made in 'The BJP and Indian Grand Strategy', an essay by Abhijnan Rej and Rahul Sagar in a special report on the BJP published last week by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Modi is merely elaborating on an existing trajectory.
The authors argue that Hindu nationalist foreign policy has historically championed ‘hard power’. But this desire for military strength and assertiveness has coexisted with anxieties about modernity, which is perceived as a threat to the religious ties that unite Hindus, and drives the BJP’s protectionist and inward-looking social and economic policies.
Rej and Sagar demonstrate that Modi has played out the Hindu nationalist preference for hard power in the context of Pakistan-India relations. This aspect of the BJP’s political ideology is arguably the driver of the theatrical responses to Uri and Pulwama: the did-they-didn’t-they-happen 2016 surgical strikes; the contentious (non) targets of the air strikes in Balakot; the F-16 that wasn’t downed. (Modi’s endorsement of the Bollywood film about Uri, and his political use of its ‘how’s the josh?’ slogan is ironic because it further blurs the lines between fact and fiction; the silver screen version of the strikes has proved more politically expeditious for Modi, overshadowing questions about real events.)
But as the authors point out, this muscular approach towards Pakistan is not a consistent position, and cannot comfortably be assumed as the BJP’s foreign policy stance. While feigning josh vis-à-vis Pakistan, Modi has not significantly advanced India’s nuclear strategy or arsenal, strengthened or better equipped the armed forces, or addressed rivalries within the military bureaucracy; defence spending under Modi fell to 1.5 per cent of GDP in 2018-19, the lowest figure since 1962.
Pakistanis should put Modi and the BJP’s hostile chest-thumping within this broader perspective to better evaluate the nature and extent of the threat from across the eastern border. The high-visibility reactions on Pakistan can be understood as a platform to demonstrate allegiance to an established Hindu nationalist political position, but they do not mean that restraint or pragmatism are inconceivable.
Simply consider the welcome progress (although recently interrupted) on the Kartarpur corridor, an avenue to keep lines of communication open with Pakistan, while furthering Modi’s broader agenda of what Rej and Sagar term religious diplomacy.
The essay is also a reminder of how much that is political is driven by the personal. Modi is only the second BJP leader after Atal Behari Vajpayee who has had to articulate and implement a Hindu nationalist strategic and foreign policy, and he has the dual burden of upholding a precedent and building a legacy. The decision to unleash hard power against post-nuclear Pakistan was, after all, first enacted by Vajpayee, with India’s actions in the Kargil war, and again through large-scale troop mobilisation following the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament.
For all the hype around Modi’s anti-Pakistan stance, he is merely elaborating on an existing trajectory, without adding fresh policy ideas or new frames through which to broker the relationship with Pakistan.
This additional context highlights that the anti-India sentiment in Pakistan is predominantly reactive, and responds to something that in itself is inconsistent and half-formed. Knowing that should serve as a reminder that Pakistan should carve out and implement its foreign policies on its own terms, and with its own interests and global ambitions in mind, rather than in opposition to what is at best a muddle, and at worst, a mirage.
There is nothing to be gained by falling into the rhetorical traps laid by external actors, who are often addressing other (domestic or intra-party) audiences. As India goes to the polls, we can take a break, content that not everything is about us.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2019