Mr Modi has realised that because of the religious, sectarian and geographical dimensions of the conflict, and just when GCC nations want to have India’s security assurances, they consider Pakistan central to any security arrangements to fight Islamic State (IS) and act as a buffer against rising Iranian influence
- Ali Malik
- December 31, 2015
Narendra Modi’s visit to Lahore has created headlines across the world. Depending on who and where you are, it has stirred reactions ranging from surprise, pleasant surprise to controversy. The global media and peace quacks in both India and Pakistan are hailing the visit as an icebreaker for negotiations amidst stalled Indo-Pak bilateral relations. Hawks on both sides are terming the visit a conspiracy and a surrender to the other side, and are linking it to the private business interests of powerful businessmen in India and Pakistan. Even moderate oppositions are suspicious of the business interest angle and both the PPP of Pakistan and Congress Party of India, though welcoming the peace process, have raised concerns about the involvement of business interests, particularly Mr Sajjan Jindal.
But a broader question that still needs an answer is what precipitated the sudden change of heart on the part of a hardliner such as hawkish Narendra Modi. Ever since assuming office, Nawaz Sharif has been the most eager of Pakistani premiers to vie for rapprochement with India. On the other hand, Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have had a very hardliner posture towards Pakistan, refusing to engage with the country. Its leaders are known for labelling political opponents and even religious communities, particularly Muslims, of being treacherous for having their loyalties to Pakistan. And the phenomenon has been on display as recently as during the recent Bihar state elections. So the real question is: why is Mr Modi eager to open up to Pakistan now?
There can be a few explanations that, put together, may have prompted this initiative. First and foremost is the international pressure. With the Mumbai incident far behind and Pakistan launching a series of operations against terrorists in its western territory, there is a growing feeling that by not talking to Pakistan, India is acting as an unreasonable player. More importantly, with his recent eagerness to fill the security vacuum in the Middle East by cosying up to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Mr Modi has realised that because of the religious, sectarian and geographical dimensions of the conflict, and just when GCC nations want to have India’s security assurances, they consider Pakistan central to any security arrangements to fight Islamic State (IS) and act as a buffer against rising Iranian influence. So, Mr Modi’s India may be considering reproaching Pakistan to be on the table of any Middle East security arrangements, hoping that with time India’s clout in the equation will grow and at some point it can leverage its good relations with both Iran and the GCC nations to acquire a central arbitrator’s role in the region.
Then there is this domestic pressure from India’s business community on Mr Modi. As China rolls out its New Silk Road initiative, seeking in particular more land linkages across Eurasia and Africa, India is crippled by its major geographic disadvantage. As China connects with Central Asia and Europe via rail links and is planning to get connected to the Middle East’s resources via Gawadar, India is crippled by having a neighbour on its western flank with whom its relation has been all but hostile. And so, India’s business community feels left out because of hostility with Pakistan. Now this business community is one of major backers of Mr Modi, and so he feels compelled to address his main backers. But then, Mr Modi is caught between his businessmen backers needing normalisation of relations with Pakistan and his Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) centric support base that thrives on hostility, xenophobia and Pakistan bashing. In this regard, Mr Modi’s misery is similar to the one felt by Mr Sharif. Just when the businessman in him and his business backers want normal relations with Pakistan, Mr Sharif’s PML-N relies heavily on extreme right wing elements to stir nuisance on religious and national issues for political gains. Just as hardline elements like the RSS and Bajrang Dul have been Mr Modi’s core constituency, elements like the Jamaatud Dawaa (JuD) have been ideologically aligned with the PML-N, the more recent peace-quacks of the PTI and the rightwing, conservative political parties. It is this dichotomy that will fail any rapprochement attempts between the two countries initiated by the PML-N and BJP. Mr Sharif’s attempts at normalisation in the 1990s were sabotaged by not his political opponent, Benazir Bhutto, but by elements from his own power bases within and outside the state apparatus. Similarly, Musharraf’s attempts for normalisation faced resistance not from within but from outside. The challenge is the same on the other side of the border and it is the BJP that reverts to hardline rhetoric at any incident that is aimed at worsening Indo-Pak relations because of its compulsion to cater to hardline street power.
In the 1990s, a narrative was developed and sold to the outside world that the best shot at peace between India and Pakistan was through hardline elements. This was used by both the BJP and the PML-N to marginalise Congress and the PPP. However, as is evident, by design the right wing, conservative parties are not equipped to see this through and usually the process falls victim to elements within. The longest lasting peace deal between India and Pakistan was the Simla Accord and it was carried out when religiously secular leaders, Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto were the strongmen of the two countries. The solution is not to appease hardliners by selling peace through them; the solution is to confront extremist, xenophobic tendencies through liberal discourse.
The author can be reached on twitter at @aalimalik
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