Dealing with Modi’s India

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 
The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

As India awaits the outcome of its election, Pakistan should calmly weigh the implications of the result for relations between the two countries and consider how – and when – to engage the new government in Delhi. The policy response needs to be carefully calculated and calibrated and guided by a sober appraisal, avoiding both a wishful, over-eager reaction and an alarmist one.

It now appears that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is set to emerge as India’s single largest party. Its leader, Narendra Modi, a polarising politician, was rightly described by The Economist recently as “a man who has thrived on division.” A life-long member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), his communal track record has evoked fear among India’s Muslims and the country’s liberal and secular sections. 

The party he leads is quite different today from that which governed India in 1998-2004, as many Indian commentators have pointed out. The BJP’s past stint in power is, therefore, not a reliable guide to the future.

A new and untested political entity in Delhi will confront Islamabad with fresh diplomatic challenges. How relations between the two countries will evolve will depend, in large part, on how Modi’s avowed muscular nationalism translates into policy. Some Indian analysts are already predicting “a more muscular China and Pakistan policy”. But no one in the BJP has spelt out what that might mean in practice. How a Modi-led government will break from the fundamentals of India’s foreign policy is yet to be determined. 

For Pakistan, distinguishing between what the BJP has said in the election and what it actually does in government will help to fashion a sound approach to deal with the new dispensation. The BJP manifesto has had little to say on foreign policy. Modi too has avoided saying much, probably because he needs to overcome his international status of pariah, owed to his role in the 2002 slaughter of Muslims in his home state of Gujarat. The BJP has, however, repeatedly assailed the Congress government for being too ‘soft’ on national security.

Several questions raised by India’s political and electoral dynamics could have a bearing on Delhi’s handling of foreign policy. The first relates to how strong and stable the next government is. This will obviously depend on whether the BJP secures an outright majority or needs allies to form and run the government. The first outcome will make significant policy departures possible. The latter will mean more continuity.

Second, to what extent will the responsibilities of power and dynamics of coalition politics restrain a Modi-led BJP from following its Hindutva agenda? Will alliances with parties that have more regionally focused agendas ‘contain’ or free Modi to pursue what his supporters describe as a more “robust” foreign policy? As few potential allies share Modi’s strident Hindu nationalism, will coalition building help to moderate him?

Prominent Indian writers have challenged the argument that Modi will be “constrained by allies” or the country’s institutions. Siddharth Varadarajan for example has argued that Modi is seeking to “convert the personality-based election campaign into a pseudo-presidential type of administration” and will face virtually no constraints from an ideologically more cohesive National Democratic Alliance (comprising BJP and allies) to pursue the social agenda of the RSS. Others too have suggested that India’s watchdog institutions may wilt before Modi’s confrontational stance, exemplified by his party’s criticism of the Election Commission.

Another question is whether Modi’s emphasis on reviving India’s struggling economy, his ‘development’ agenda, and support from corporate India, will urge him toward more pragmatic policies and focus on economic issues rather than the Hindutva agenda or sabre rattling against neighbours.

For now these questions are wrapped in uncertainty. Precisely for that reason, Islamabad would be well advised to adopt a wait-and-see approach until the new government settles in, defines its agenda and sets out its foreign policy direction. 

Rather than rush headlong into hasty, poorly-thought engagement, Islamabad should first fully assess the situation and then evolve a coherent diplomatic strategy that can best promote the goal of normalising relations with India on mutually acceptable terms.

There are of course concerns in Pakistan that a Modi-led government might adopt a harder line on Kashmir. Persuading Delhi for talks that recognise Kashmir’s importance to the normalisation process will likely be more problematic under Modi than it was during Congress rule. 

Although Modi has generally been circumspect in comments on Indo-Pakistan relations, his response to army chief Raheel Sharif’s reference to Kashmir as Pakistan’s “jugular vein” is instructive in this regard. In an interview with an Indian news agency, Modi described this as “highly provocative" and said he wished the outgoing government had taken a "stronger stand on this uninvited interference" in India’s “internal affairs”.

Predictably, the BJP manifesto has pledged to scrap Article 370, which gives Indian-held Kashmir constitutionally sanctioned ‘special status’. Over the years, Article 370 has been amended to virtual death. But whether the promise to constitutionally formalise a de facto situation materialises or is put into abeyance in deference to coalition partners (as happened during the last BJP government) will have an important bearing on its handling of Kashmir.

The fundamental issue that Islamabad will have to address is how to deal with the new government if, as present indications suggest, Delhi refuses to revive the broad based “composite” dialogue, cherry picks issues of priority to India and excludes Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek from the structured engagement between the two countries.

Should Islamabad then just engage on trade/economic issues that the BJP government might be responsive to, and agree to put contentious issues, all of which are deadlocked, on the backburner? Can this approach even work or be sustainable when the strategic environment between the two neighbours remains fraught, and unresolved disputes cast a dark shadow over efforts to develop a more normal relationship?

A new government in Delhi will undoubtedly offer an opportunity for a reset of relations. But to build a sustainable basis for normalisation, Islamabad should not be lured into accepting a selective approach to engagement based only on so-called ‘soft issues’ when it knows that discord over ‘hard issues’ can easily erupt into tensions and derail even modest movement in economic ties.

This is dictated by common sense and attested by recent and past experience. Sustainability of the normalisation process, including building economic ties, has to be assured by addressing issues of discord between the two countries, not ignoring them, because they frequently and inescapably re-emerge to re-ignite tensions and set back the peace process. This happened again last year when tensions on the Line of Control in Kashmir halted progress in liberalising trade. This was but the latest example of how festering problems can easily derail the normalisation process. 

Therefore, it will be a diplomatic error to settle for a fragmented normalisation process instead of the long-accepted, comprehensive, eight-issue framework for dialogue, which reflects the priorities and concerns of both sides, and not just one country’s agenda. 

Once the new government has had time to settle down, Pakistan should seek the revival of a full-fledged peace process on the grounds that limiting the bilateral engagement to a single track will neither build enduring economic relations nor make longstanding disputes go away.

When the complexion of the new government becomes evident, as well as who will form its foreign policy and national security team, Islamabad should carry out a comprehensive review of the possibilities and challenges before taking any diplomatic initiative with Delhi. It should also seek to test the new government on substance rather than gestures, which officials of this government have been prone to do in the past.

It should convey to India’s new leadership, and to assorted international actors eager for progress on Pakistan-India relations, that partial dialogue will only lead to partial and transient normalisation. To be real, normalisation has to take place across the board – even if some tracks in the dialogue will move faster than others. A ‘partial peace’ will be just that, ‘partial’, and prone to disruption and regression.

Twitter: @LodhiMaleeha