Domestic issues such as inflation, sluggish economic growth, and corruption have been debated more widely in the current election in comparison to foreign policy issues. The manifestos of the two national parties are rather vague about their foreign policy vision. Except that the BJP has promised to follow a ‘muscular foreign policy’ while the Congress has spoken about the need for strengthening ties with ‘Socialist Countries’. If one were to look at the neighborhood, specifically Pakistan, neither of the manifestos elaborates on the sort of policy it will follow. It would be unfair to blame the political parties for not articulating their vision since relations with Pakistan are a complicated affair and the policy needs to be in sync with not just the evolving geo-political scenario, but also the domestic politics of both the countries. It would be pertinent to point out, that both Dr Manmohan Singh who headed the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Coalition for the past decade, as well as his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee who headed the BJP-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) from 1998-2004 have taken a number of risks, much to the chagrin of their colleagues, for the betterment of ties between India and Pakistan.
During the course of the election campaign however, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial Candidate, Narendra Modi, has on a number of occasions spoken about a more aggressive policy vis-à-vis Pakistan and accused the ruling UPA dispensation in New Delhi of having been soft vis-à-vis Islamabad. During recent interviews of course Modi has spoken a very different language –categorically stating that India cannot afford to have strained ties with neighbouring countries including Pakistan.
What is interesting, however, is that while in New Delhi (and other parts of India) relations with Pakistan are not given much importance – except in the context of cross-border terrorism or whenever there are tensions across the Line of Control (LOC) – in border regions such as Rajasthan and Punjab, good relations with Pakistan especially in the sphere of trade and commerce are an important poll issue.
While in Punjab, politicians from the BJP and Congress have spoken about the need for increasing trade through the Wagah-Attari land route, and also opening more land routes like Hussainiwala-Kasur (Pakistan).
In Rajasthan too cordial relations with Pakistan are an important poll issue, since there are close links between Western Rajasthan and Sindh, with there being a large number of separated families. In Punjab, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), an ally of the BJP, has made opening up of more land routes for trade a poll issue, along with the construction of a religious corridor link, ‘Kartarpur Sahib,’ between the Sikh shrines of Dera Baba Nanak (India) and Kartarpur Sahib (Pakistan). The demand is for connecting the two shrines which are only 5 kilometres apart, and were connected by a bridge before it got destructed in the 1965 war. The Congress Party has promised that if voted back into power it will give a further fillip to trade not just via the Wagah-Attari land route, but through the opening up of the Hussainiwala-Kasur route. Congress leaders have also warned that the election of Narendra Modi as PM may lead to strained ties between both countries, which will have an adverse impact on Punjab’s economy.
Interestingly, even the BJP has realized that in Punjab, anti-Pakistan rhetoric will not sell. In this context, the candidate from the Amritsar seat, a senior BJP leader and former Minister Arun Jaitley who is likely to occupy an important position if the BJP were voted to power has promised to work for improving trade ties between both countries.
In the border belt of Rajasthan as well, vitriol vis-à-vis Pakistan does not find much resonance. A clear illustration of this is the campaign in the Barmer Parliamentary Seat. Jaswant Singh, a former BJP Leader who served as Defence, Foreign and Finance Minister, and is fighting as an independent this time has made opening up of the Munabao (Rajasthan) – Khokhrapar (Sindh) route for trade an important poll issue.
A train service, ‘Thar Express,’ between Munabao-Khokhrapar was resumed in 2006. The service had been stopped after the 1965 war. Singh as a Minister in the BJP Government had pitched hard for the revival of the train link. During his election campaign, he also spoke about the need for increasing the frequency of the train service.
If Modi does become PM, it remains to be seen how he balances out his muscular policy with the demands of border states for more harmonious ties with Pakistan. Having been a Chief Minister, and being pro-business there is a strong chance that Modi will adopt a pragmatic line, incorporating both elements.