By: Tridivesh Singh Maini and Yasser Latif Hamdani
With the BJP-led NDA Coalition being the frontrunner in the Indian Parliamentary elections, according to all surveys and opinion polls, all eyes are on Narendra Modi, the BJP’s PM Candidate and Chief Minister of Gujarat. Modi, who means different things to different people, a development icon for some and a hardline Hindu leader for others, has led an aggressive campaign targeting the current UPA dispensation for all its failures – especially mismanagement of the economy and corruption. He has also put forth his economic vision and agenda for development which at times seems sketchy, but has managed to strike a chord with the Urban Middle Classes – especially the youth.
In addition to his development agenda, Modi has also spoken about a robust but pragmatic foreign policy vis-à-vis the outside world. Modi has had a troubled relationship with the US, which rejected his visa application in 2005. It would be crucial to add, however, that US businesses have invested in Gujarat over the past decade, and Nancy Powell who recently resigned as US Ambassador to India met with the Gujarat CM in Gandhinagar in February 2014 – before quitting. The strong Indian diaspora in the US, as well as business interests in the US will play a pivotal role in ensuring that Modi establishes a working relationship with the US. What will be worth watching is Modi’s policy towards Pakistan. Some believe, that being a right-winger, Modi will be in a better position to strike a deal with Pakistan, citing the example of Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee who led the earlier BJP Government from 1998-2004 and reached out to both Nawaz Sharif and General Pervez Musharraf. Others argue that Modi will adopt a hawkish approach towards Pakistan, pointing out to his rhetoric against Pakistan during the election campaign. The BJP leader also is not liked in Pakistan for his alleged role in the 2002 riots.
All these explanations are simplistic.
While there may be some truth in BJP having more space for manouevre vis-à-vis Pakistan than the Congress, we need to realize that we live in very different times from the 1990’s. It is true that the Vajpayee government engaged with Pakistan in 2001, two years after Kargil, and then also declared a ceasefire in 2003 – barely two years after the attack on Indian Parliament. However, the 2008 Mumbai attacks have been a game changer and high-level engagement, especially at the Prime Ministerial, level can no longer escape media scrutiny. Even high-level meetings on the sidelines of summits, such as the meeting between Dr Singh and Nawaz Sharif in September last year, came for a heavy dose of criticism from the Indian media. So, high-level meetings with elaborate agendas can be ruled out temporarily. It would also be pertinent to mention, that with the Indian economy not doing particularly well, Modi’s space for grand gestures towards Pakistan has further reduced. Making substantial concessions towards Pakistan is much easier when the economy is performing reasonably well.
Yet, there is a ray of hope for the simple reason that Modi’s foreign policy is also likely to be driven by trade and commerce. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, he reached out to a number of countries including China, which he visited in 2011. Modi also met a number of business delegations from Karachi, he was extended an invitation to visit Pakistan by one of these delegations. A number of business lobbies, especially from the state of Punjab, Rajasthan and Modi’s own home state of Gujarat are also keen to give a fillip to economic ties with Pakistan. There have been demands by businessmen from all three states to open up more land routes. While in Punjab, the state government and chambers of commerce have been lobbying for opening up the Hussainiwala-Kasur land route for trade, in addition to the Wagah-Attari border.
In Rajasthan, there has been a demand to open the Munabao-Khokhrapar land route for trade, while in Gujarat, chambers of commerce from the Kutch region have been urging the central government to open land routes for trade with Sindh. Similarly, the business community of Surat is keen to rekindle ties with the Memons of Karachi.
While the demands for greater economic linkages with Pakistan cannot dictate Modi’s Pakistan policy, especially in times of tension, they cannot be ignored for a number of reasons. Foremost is the fact that a BJP Government is in power in Rajasthan. The Shiromani Akali Dal, an ally of the BJP, is in power in Punjab. Both states make up a large chunk of the India-Pakistan border. Modi has spoken about granting a greater role to state governments in foreign policy, and this is part of the BJP’s manifesto. On the face of it this looks counterintuitive. Central governments everywhere are wont to hang on to foreign policy jealously. Yet, if this can be achieved then the prospects of a Pakistani Punjab and Indian Punjab forging a relationship on the basis of mutual economic interest are greater than the alternative. After all, Pakistani Punjab is the largest province of Pakistan and the bedrock of conservative jingoistic nationalism in Pakistan. If Pakistani Punjab can be engaged through a pragmatic economics-based foreign policy, India-Pakistan relations will see a paradigmatic shift, of the kind that has not been witnessed since 1947. Better economic relations would mean security for India’s economic and political interests. Modi, out of all candidates, is better placed to bell the cat. Security of India’s economic and political interests therefore will be the paramount concern behind any such positive overtures with Pakistan.
Finally there is the personal equation. Modi’s career and Nawaz Sharif’s career afford some extraordinary similarities. Nawaz Sharif’s party, his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, is a center-right party in Pakistani context which nonetheless places development and the economy above conservative nationalism, thus making his nationalism more pragmatic. His two previous stints as Prime Minister saw some impressive economic reforms and a focus on infrastructural development. Nawaz Sharif too has been accused of being a hardliner, with some of his actions – namely his attempt to create a theocracy in Pakistan with powers concentrated in his hands through the now defunct 15th Amendment, coming for severe criticism.
While Nawaz Sharif’s relations with Manmohan Singh were affected by tensions across the Line of Control (LoC) and the two could not achieve much due to a terrorist attack on the eve of their meeting. Modi may be in a better position to negotiate with Sharif, considering the control he has over his party.
Modi is not Vajpayee and 2014 is not 1998, 1999 or 2004. We live in an even more complex region and it would be unfair to expect Modi to ape Vajpayee, but the former would do well to learn that Pakistan cannot be wished away, and neither can it be ‘taught a lesson.’ If anything, both countries should learn their lessons from the past, and aim to compete with each other in the economic realm rather than an arms race.
Here the emphasis on a muscular foreign policy – as has been Modi’s explicit position recently – needs to be modified and reinterpreted. The Sanskrit phrase “vasudeva katumba” that Modi has recently used should occasion an ideological benevolence to all neighbours on the principles of humanity. Interestingly, Modi linked this sentiment to his belief in ‘Hindutva’
Modi’s moment in South Asia will be defined by how he seeks to reconcile his ideological affiliations with the more pragmatic concerns that his office will bring.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is Associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat (India).
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan. He has authored the book “Jinnah; Myth and Reality”. He was one of Asia Society’s India-Pakistan Young Leaders for 2013.