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Relating to Modi’s India

By Talat Masood

May 24 2014

The landslide victory for the right-wing BJP was a clear message by the people of India that they had rejected the poor economic performance and pervasive corruption that characterised the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition government. The Indian electorate has also given an unambiguous verdict against dynastic politics. The Nehru family can no more expect blind loyalty that overlooks performance and efficiency. This was evident, as the BJP has won seats practically all over India even in states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu where it hardly had any presence in the past. Its total dominance in the Hindu heartland of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was another blow to regional parties and the Congress.

The voter has given Narendra Modi a mandate to transform India, put the economy on fast track, initiate fundamental reforms and ‘improve governance with less government control’. His win has generated a new wave of enthusiasm among his millions of supporters who wanted a strong leader and also deep scepticism among his detractors who consider him divisive and a rabid Hindu nationalist. It is really the young voter who has been his main supporter. Today, 50 per cent of the Indian population is below the age of 35 and they are frustrated due to the lack of job opportunities and a sluggish economy. They see Modi as a pro-development leader with focus on the economy who will create jobs for them. At this time, he represents their aspirations and the expectation is that Modi will replicate his successful economic model of Gujarat on the rest of India. This would be a great challenge for him for he will have to deliver on the economic front and push through reforms, or the same surge of goodwill, that won him votes, could turn against him.

Modi is one of the most authoritarian leaders India has voted for after Indira Gandhi. With his style of governance, power will remain centralised. He can claim laurels in success but in the event of failure, the burden would be largely his. Modi is a very controversial leader who is feared by the minorities, particularly the Muslims, for his fierce Hindu nationalism and alleged involvement in the pogrom in Gujarat in which thousands of Muslims were burnt alive. During elections, Modi also engaged in tough talk against Pakistan (and China) and has alluded to pursuing a muscular foreign and defence policy. Lately, he has been far more conciliatory in his public utterances. Considering that the main thrust of Modi’s policy is to concentrate on India’s sluggish economy is a form of pragmatism that dictates that he will try to maintain a peaceful posture towards Pakistan without showing any flexibility in resolving the issue of Jammu & Kashmir, Siachen and even Sir Creek. It is unlikely that composite dialogue will be revived, but selectively, matters of trade and commerce could move forward. And Islamabad may grant the over-delayed MFN status to gain goodwill and normalcy in relations. Demand by India for expediting conviction of perpetrators of the Mumbai incident, handing over of Dawood Ibrahim and reining in of the jihadi militants is likely to continue; somewhat similar to the erstwhile policy pursued by the Congress. Any major bold initiatives to resolve issues or to expect that Modi would open a new chapter in relations with Pakistan would be premature.

Any recurrence of the Mumbai-type incident would be very risky and could lead to unintended consequences. For this, Pakistan will have to tighten control over jihadi groups so that they do not embark on adventurism and create serious problems for our state.

A major restraining factor on Modi to pursue his Hindu nationalist agenda will be India’s significantly large Muslim population and the priority that he accords to expanding trade and economic linkages with Middle Eastern countries. More significantly, competition with China would also suffer if India gets embroiled in regional quarrels.

Moreover, Pakistan, too, needs to take some tangible steps to show that it is genuinely committed to turning the page on its relations with India. The government, by tacitly allowing radical leaders, who are international pariahs, to frequently parade their militias on Pakistani streets as patriots, is throwing a red rag before the bull. Serious reservations of India aside, it is highly damaging for Pakistan’s interest and international image to embrace these regressive forces.

Irrespective of the pace at which the comprehensive dialogue moves, both countries should at least revive the strategic dialogue. New Delhi should seriously review the Cold Start doctrinethat has been developed to respond to a potential terrorist attack from across the border as Pakistan is fielding tactical nuclear weapons as its deterrence. Now that Pakistan itself is the worst victim of militancy both countries need to address this common scourge through political and security cooperation rather than taking the risky military route of countervailing each other.

The volatility on the Line of Control (LoC) also remains a flashpoint between India and Pakistan and could easily trigger tensions that can rapidly escalate. Recurrence of violence on the LoC, with each side blaming the other for violation, makes matters worse in the absence of neutral UN observers to monitor the border.

As progress on the resolution of the Kashmir issue seems not to be in sight, it is important that additional measures be undertaken to effectively stabilise the border. Pulling back forces a few kilometres on both sides and greater communication at the military-to-military level could contribute towards reducing such incidents.

The withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and the emerging situation provide both a challenge and an opportunity for both the countries. They could cooperate to stabilise Afghanistan or act as rivals playing proxies and undermining each other. With prospects of Abdullah Abdullah winning the final round and his close relations with India, Islamabad needs a more circumspect policy.

There are lessons in BJP’s victory for our political parties, and more so for the fringe right, that secular India was prepared to tolerate religious nationalism provided it can deliver on the economic front.

Originally published by Tribune Pakistan

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