Sixteen years ago in May 1998, less than two months after he formed an omnibus coalition, India’s former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, gave the signal to test a nuclear device in the deserts of Rajasthan.
Nine months later, in February 1999, Vajpayee crossed the Wagah Border and visited Pakistan. He launched the Lahore-Delhi Bus Service and inked the Lahore Agreement with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Before relations between the two nations went on a downward trajectory, there was unanimity that the best chance of peace in the subcontinent was if the Bharatiya Janata Party was at the head of a government in New Delhi. It was argued that only a party that had grown by articulating demands of a section of Hindus would have the chutzpah to go for a long-term settlement with Islamabad.
There is a strong probability of another BJP-led government coming to power in India. So what are the prospects of peace in the subcontinent? What will be the Pakistan-policy of BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi? Will he walk across the Rann of Kutch and offer a hand of friendship to the Pakistani leadership or will he muster plans for a round of confrontation? Answers to these questions become particularly significant because this will have a bearing on the geopolitics of the region and also shape India’s foreign policy under the new dispensation.
For starters, Modi is temperamentally in complete contrast to Vajpayee. Besides the obvious difference in personalities, their political trajectories have been poles apart. Vajpayee ascended to the top by advocating anti-Congress politics and never directly endorsed use of religion in politics. In contrast, Modi rose through an aggressive Hindutva campaign that promoted prejudice on religious lines and widened social schism. Vajpayee’s domestic constituency did not want to “teach them a lesson”; whereas chastening the imaginary enemy is the cornerstone on Modi’s campaign.
Very recently Modi made two specific references to Pakistan: firstly, he referred to infiltration from Bangladesh into Assam and West Bengal and claimed that while Indians in these areas were troubled because of illegal migration, Pakistan was “disturbed because of me.” In another instance he clawed at Pakistan and attempted to link it with political adversaries. Modi said that Pakistan used three types of AKs – assault rifles AK-47, defence minister A K Antony and Aam Aadmi Party leader, Arvind Kejriwal – termed AK-49 with numerals referring to the number of days he was chief minister of Delhi.
On the basis of his past track record, it is natural to expect Modi’s Pakistan policy to be strident. However, the level of Modi’s animosity or friendliness towards Pakistan will depend completely on the extent of power he has domestically. His stance will depend on the number of seats BJP wins on its own and how many seats are needed from allies to secure a majority. A more precise assessment of the situation can be made after the verdict on May 16 but it is evident a powerful Modi will be more reasonable and open to dialogue with Islamabad. But if he is on the weak wicket domestically, Modi has the potential of being less amiable in his stance towards Pakistan.
Quite often in his campaign in the past, Modi implicitly accused minorities of having extra-territorial loyalties and working relations with forces in Pakistan, both State and non-State.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times
Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2014.