India has begun voting in a seven-phase general election. The first phase was over on April 11. The vote to elect a new parliament will continue till May 19 and the results will be announced on May 23. The parliamentary polls are seen as a referendum on the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
Like the rest of the world, Pakistan is closely following the developments in India. Assessments are being made as to who suits Pakistan more or who is a lesser evil — the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Congress led by Rahul Gandhi?
Prime Minister Imran Khan thinks re-election of Modi could be a better bet for Pakistan-India peace. Imran believes if the next Indian government is led by the Congress party, it might be too scared to seek a settlement with Pakistan over Kashmir, fearing a backlash from the right.
“Perhaps if the BJP — a right-wing party — wins, some kind of settlement in Kashmir could be reached,” the PM told foreign journalists recently in Islamabad. His remarks ignited debate both in India and Pakistan. In India, the opposition used Imran’s statement to taunt Modi because he has often claimed that his political rivals and Pakistan want the BJP to lose the elections. Imran’s statement has put the BJP in a tight corner and its supporters are wondering how to respond.
Opposition parties in Pakistan also took Imran to task for endorsing Modi’s re-election bid. The reaction forced Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to insist that his statement was taken out of context.
For many, Imran’s assessment was surprising given the fact that it was Modi who ordered Indian fighter jets to cross over into Pakistan for the first time in five decades following the Pulwama attack in February. The two countries were on the brink of war when Pakistan retaliated and shot down two Indian warplanes and captured one of its pilots.
But notwithstanding the criticism, Imran’s assessment seeing better chances of Pakistan-India peace under Modi than Rahul Gandhi was not wrong either. Modi’s re-election certainly has both advantages and disadvantages. The major drawback for Pakistan is that he can push the two nuclear-armed neighbours to war as he has shown after the Pulwama attack. During his five-year tenure, Modi also tried to change rules of engagements with Pakistan. He has hardened his stance on talks with Pakistan. But that is one aspect. In his tenure, he has also shown the inclination to go out of the box with Pakistan.
After his landslide victory in 2014, he invited then prime minister Nawaz Sharif to his oath-taking ceremony, something that surprised many given his anti-Pakistan stance during the election campaign. He even put his political career at stake when in December 2015 he made a surprise stopover in Lahore to greet Sharif on his birthday and attend his granddaughter’s wedding. Only Modi could pull off such a spectacle.
On the other hand, when Pakistan and India had the most sustained and uninterrupted dialogue process between 2004 and 2008, then prime minister Manmohan Singh could not undertake a visit to Islamabad because of the fear of a domestic backlash. That was a time when Pakistan and India had the best of relationship and even there were reports that the two sides were close to reaching some kind of understanding on the longstanding Kashmir dispute. Just imagine if Manmohan could not take a decision, then how the Congress would respond to any peace overtures in a far more hostile environment now.
Given this stark reality, Modi’s re-election may not necessarily be bad for Pakistan. Also, it is unlikely that Modi will continue his ‘muscular and anti-Pakistan’ approach even after the elections. There is a likelihood that Modi may spring another surprise by reciprocating the peace overtures being repeatedly extended by Prime Minister Imran.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2019.