Point, Counter-Point: South Asian Leadership and their Legacies

Point, Counter-Point: A Four Part Series

Leader takes all, not, by  Jayita Sarkar

Pragmatism, the NDA and Sharif, by Hamzah Rifaat

South Asian Leadership and their Legacies  by Amina Afzal

Narendra Modi’s Leadership and his Pakistan Strategy, by Reshmi Kazi


“When conversations turn to foreign policy and international politics they often focus on particular leaders and evaluations of their leadership.”

Much of the contemporary debate on the importance of leaders in international relations revolves around the restraints that limit the power of leaders to make decisions. However, the discussion has also led to the emergence of the belief that leaders essentially define both the internal and external constraints facing a state. Leaders help frame their “government’s orientation” towards foreign policy based on their experiences, goals, beliefs and perceptions.

Scholars often argue that if militant hardliners who view the world in terms of realpolitik assume power war would become inevitable. Based on a more optimistic view of human nature, some scholars contend that democracies do not fight each other because democratically elected leaders work on the underlying assumption that their peers have peaceful intentions. The cases of India and Pakistan and their respective leaders, however, have often defied these assumptions as military leaders in Pakistan have made overtures of peace towards India and democratically elected leaders have been criticized for urging the masses “to cut an Indian governor into little pieces.” Likewise in India, right wing nationalist leaders have surprised the world by making offers of peace to Pakistan.

The India-Pakistan relationship has long been characterised by a ‘trust deficit’ in bilateral relations. In a book published in 2007, Professors Ken Booth and Nicholas Wheeler argue that ‘leaps in the dark’ made by either side could help mitigate this security dilemma existing between the two South Asian neighbours. Leaps in the dark are essentially “confidence-building moves that are highly symbolic, unilateral and designed to entice positive reciprocation from the adversary.”  From the Indian perspective, an oft-cited example of a leap in the dark is Prime Minister Vajpayee’s 1999 bus journey to Lahore. The timing of this “highly symbolic” step was crucial as it occurred in the wake of the overt nuclearization of South Asia in 1998. Vajpayee’s willingness to take such a step went a long way in shaping the future direction of India-Pakistan relations. Such was the significance of this overture that even after Kargil when both the countries finally resumed the peace process, they did not question the spirit of Lahore. This incident clearly illustrates the fact that the role of leadership remains crucial not only in terms of shaping events but also in ultimately shaping opinions within their respective polities. It is no wonder that the BJP’s legacy is still referred to in Pakistan rather wistfully: “At a recent briefing for Parliamentarians in Islamabad, there were fond references to the “political legacy” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), particularly former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his trip to Lahore by bus in 1999.”

Although Vajpayee’s bus diplomacy is touted as the most significant offer of an olive branch in bilateral relations between the two nations, the “cricket diplomacy” initiated by President Zia-ul-Haq also merits equal recognition. General Zia-ul-Haq “invited himself” to a cricket match in Chennai at a time when tensions between the two countries were very high. Although Pakistani and Indian diplomats believed they were managing the crisis well, commentators attribute the final de-escalation to President Zia’s visit. The visit also culminated in the declaration of non-attack on their respective nuclear installations.

Incidentally when Benazir Bhutto became the Prime Minister of Pakistan many in India saw her as a secular, liberal opportunity: a prime minister who might bring less religion and less militancy to the Indian-Pakistani dialogue.” Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management however describes, “She was very directly responsible for the jihad, directly inciting terrorists to intensify terrorism in India…I would find it very difficult to find a single element with her relationship to India that is positive and for the betterment of her country or the region.”

During President Pervez Musharraf’s tenure as President, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee once again extended an offer of friendship to Pakistan. His decision was based largely on the policy changes adopted by President Musharraf. Critics have observed that the timing of this decision was likely to have a positive impact on the upcoming election. These policy changes from the Indian perspective were even more significant because Musharraf, a military man who had orchestrated  the Kargil attack as Pakistan’s army chief, had undertaken them. Vajpayee’s consequent decision to visit Pakistan for a second time proved extremely valuable for the dialogue process. Although prompted by a visible policy shift in Pakistan, his decision was largely motivated by personal and domestic political agendas.

The on-going elections in India and a possible change in leadership imply a difficult situation for Pakistan. Even secular parties including the Congress have been using anti-Pakistan rhetoric to gain leverage in the polls. In his recent speech, BJP’s Prime Ministerial Candidate Narendra Modi swore to attack Pakistan upon assuming power. Critics have dismissed the statement as nothing more than a “jingoistic election stunt.”  However, such a statement exemplifies what the future under a BJP-dominated government may look like for the region. On its part, Pakistan maintains that it wants peace with India – whoever comes to power. It is also keen to resume the composite dialogue. In such a situation what is required are some “leaps in the dark” together with the wisdom to move towards a lasting peace in the region.  Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ex-Ambassador to the US aptly sums up the situation, “The received wisdom is that the Congress was a victim of its own liberal drift, and that perhaps the Right can go forward as Vajpayee did, but I find this political construct too simplistic. I do worry about state responses in a bilateral crisis: will a Rightist leader be able to show restraint? Will their rhetoric ramp up the blood-pumping chauvinism that we have walked away from in mainstream Pakistan?”



Posted in , CBMs, India, India-Pakistan Relations, leadership, Pakistan, Point Counter-Point, Politics

Amina Afzal

Amina Afzal

Amina Afzal is an Islamabad-based researcher with an MSc in Defence and Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University. She recently graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies with a certificate in Non-Proliferation Studies. She worked as a GRA for the CNS James Martin Center for Non Proliferation Studies.

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2 thoughts on “Point, Counter-Point: South Asian Leadership and their Legacies

  1. * The idea for an agreement on non attack on nuclear facilities was initially proposed during President Zia’a visit to Chennai. The actual agreement however was signed after President Zia’s death.

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