The people of India have chosen BJP and its leader Narendra Modi to govern India in the next half decade. This development will have crucial impact on the Indo-Pak peace process. Whether this process suffers serious derailment, makes credible progress, or proceeds with lacklustre pace as before will depend upon several factors, most important of which will be the approach Modi’s government adopts towards Pakistan.
Given BJP’s Hindutva ideology and Modi’s professed hatred for Muslims, the pessimistic scenario for the peace process would entail renewed tensions between the two traditional rivals, with the risk of open-ended hostility, as was the case between 1999 and 2002 during BJP’s previous regime.
Modi was the chief minister of Gujrat when Hindu zealots massacred over 1,000 Muslims, with the support of state machinery. Modi’s connivance in this horrible crime was well reported then, even if he evaded legal conviction afterwards for orchestrating it. During the election campaign, he refused to condemn anti-Muslim riots in UP, and, in one controversial media comment, compared his sympathy for Muslims killed in Gujrat with a puppy run over by a car. And, like L K Advani and other BJP leaders, he also played an active part in the 1992 destruction of Babri Mosque.
Thus, there is little doubt about Modi’s credential as the arch-bearer of Hindu nationalism, which threatens to demolish India’s secular foundation. He is the leader with a tainted past and a declared agenda for favouring India’s majority Hindu population over everyone else, especially Muslims. How could then Modi be expected to make amends with a country like Pakistan that was created for the Muslims of India?
However pragmatic he may be while in power—for sheer needs of governing as ethno-religiously diverse a country as India or managing its external relations in a complicated neighbourhood—the ideological baggage of Hindu nationalism and his violent rule in fuelling it for political reasons may continue to haunt India's approach towards Pakistan under his leadership.
Proponents of conflict with Pakistan, in Indian media or wider public, are no less, and they would love to support his hostile moves. And Pakistan should be Modi’s preferred scapegoat, if and when he fails to deliver on his pledged agenda for economic development and employment generation in the country. Achieving economic success in a state, which is also questionable, is easy, and emulating the same countrywide may be difficult. He has raised Indian expectations for better life to a level that may be difficult, if not impossible, to meet.
For the vested interests in Pakistan having a stake in conflict with India—non-state actors with a jihadi agenda in the region in particular—Modi's victory may have come as a blessing. They may attempt to provoke the Modi regime into conflict with Pakistan, if not for anything else but to shake the rare civilian political consensus for improving relations with India that has recently existed in Pakistan. Will Modi fall in their trap? Being a strong leader, his response to terrorist provocation from the jihadi forces in Pakistan will most likely be more resolute than his predecessor, which will surely lead to a major crisis with Pakistan.
Such possibility could only be averted if Modi and Nawaz Sharif are able to develop mutual understanding about the pivotal need for peace between the two nations, and make a commitment to not let it be derailed at any cost. This would mean closer counter-terrorism collaboration between the two countries, and a stricter and more transparent approach in fighting homegrown terrorist groups by Pakistani government and security apparatus.
BJP has indeed secured part of the Muslim vote bank in India, but the persistence of fear among its Muslim minority from the Modi-led Hindu nationalist government is a reality, which may become more acute if instances of communal violence on the pattern of Gujrat massacre recur in India. This would provide an excuse to indigenous terrorist groups like Indian Mujahideen to engage in mass terrorism alone or with the aid of terrorist groups from outside India. The forces prone to conflict with India in Pakistan will also regenerate in the process, to jeopardise whatever gains have thus far been made in the Indo-Pak peace process.
Having said this, it was indeed wise on Sharif’s part to congratulate Modi on his election victory and invite him to visit Islamabad. Modi has reciprocated the gesture, inviting Sharif to his inauguration ceremony in Delhi, which he must attend. And when the two leaders meet now or in future, they need to publicly pronounce their unwavering commitment to resolve past conflicts and consolidate recent gains in trade and other cooperative spheres. This is the only way to move forward.
It is good that Modi and Sharif have a lot in common. Both came to power with a landslide electoral victory, precisely because their predecessors—the Pakistan Peoples Party-led regime in Pakistan and the Congress Party-led coalition in India—did not perform well in government. In the elections, Pakistanis trusted Sharif-led PML-N and Indians trusted Modi-led BJP for governing more efficiently and transparently.
Modi, like Sharif, is business-friendly. He developed the state of Gujrat and now promises to emulate his economic success in Gujrat throughout India. PML-N’s performance in Punjab, both in economic and political terms, was crucial in letting the party secure public mandate for governing the entire country. Promoting bilateral cooperation in trade, investment and energy in the region is an agenda that Sharif and Modi equally share.
Moreover, the two leaders represent strong political constituencies—Hindu nationalists representative of India’s majority population in Modi’s case and Punjabi civilian establishment as Pakistan’s demographic majority in Sharif’s case. Consequently, both are relatively immune from charges of national disloyalty in case of making any bold move to take the bilateral relationship forward. Prime Minister Sharif has a track record of doing so for the sake of peace with India and political assertion at home. One such venture in 1999—that of hosting Prime Minister Vajpaee in Lahore—cost him his premiership. He renewed his pledge for peace soon after becoming Prime Minister for the third time last year.
That’s true of BJP’s leadership as well: For L K Advani, the architect of the Babri Mosque tragedy and rabidly anti-Pakistan figure in the 90s, did in the end pay homage to Jinnah. Jaswant Singh celebrated Jinnah in his biographical account of Pakistan’s founding father. And, of course, besides his sojourn to Minar-e-Pakistan, Vajpaee did not let Kargil to spoil relations between the two countries and invited General Musharraf to Agra and then attended the SAARC summit in Islamabad, where the two leaders decided to resume the Composite Dialogue.
In short, with India under Modi’s leadership, there are surely enough reasons to be pessimistic about the future of Indo-Pak peace process, but there are equally good reasons to be optimistic about this. Even otherwise, it is one thing to win an election, and altogether another to run a country. Thus, despite the constraining factors of BJP’s Hindutva ideology and Modi’s hand in Gujrat tragedy, the realities of domestic governance and limitations of external relations may actually determine the new Indian government’s approach towards Pakistan.
As for Pakistan, unlike before, it is facing serious security and economic challenges at home, and its civilian and security leadership are on the same plane in tackling them on an urgent basis. It civilian leadership - with, of course, tacit approval of the security establishment - has opted for a regional pivot since early 2012, which is grounded in increased and transparent cooperation with India and Afghanistan as well as other regional states.
More than ever, economic cooperation and regional peace is in Pakistan’s pragmatic interest. This is the message that Pakistan’s ambassador to India, Abdul Basit, has conveyed to BJP leaders. Sartaj Aziz, the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Policy, expects the Modi regime to make more constructive and decisive moves, as compared to its predecessor, with respect to the peace process.
Regional interests of India and Pakistan are also quite compatible. Both need to find a common ground in Afghanistan, where the risk of renewed civil war post-2014 is real. For India, Afghanistan and Pakistan constitute a potential corridor of trade and energy between South and Central Asia. Since 2008, the two countries are part of the gas pipeline agreement, with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan as two other signatories.
Modi must be aware that without Pakistan’s cooperation India cannot have trade and energy access to Central Asia, which is crucial for overcoming recent economic stagnation in India. If his agenda is really to wrest economic stagnation, build infrastructure, attract foreign investment, promote business and create jobs in India, then he can be expected to contribute to fast-paced progress in Indo-Pak economic, trade and energy relationship. Pakistan is likewise hungry for alternative sources of energy and greater market access for its exports in the region. Thus, in the days ahead, Modi and Sharif may very well try not let the future fate of two nations dictated by past hostility, and, instead, opt for pioneering initiatives for restoring mutual peace and promoting regional integration.
This commentary can be accessed at weeklypulse.org