Prime Minister Narendera Modi’s high ambitions of re-shaping India on an extremist Hindutva model and region as India dominated South Asia with other counties relegated to vassal status has come to a naught rather quickly. His invitation to all heads of SAARC countries to attend his inaugural ceremony was the first step in this regard; compliance by all stooges —though in good faith—gave Modi an impression that he had achieved this objective, so he started behaving like regional Maharaja, while at the same time submitting to the mighty by pouring tea for Obama.
Nepal has adopted a new constitution much to Indian dislike. Despite numerous strategic concessions like a border agreement to India’s advantage and generous grant of transit rights, Bangladesh has not been able to get anything in reciprocation; even its rightful share of water continues to be usurped by India. Sri Lank is struggling to come out of the shadow of LTTE era, orchestrated by out-right Indian support to the Tamil terrorist entity. To ease its difficulties, Pakistan has offered to allocate space in its Special Economic Zones for Sri Lankan investors. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has realised that his obsession of friendly relations with India—during Modi era—is a pipe dream.
However, most remarkable resistance has come from within Indian civil society which has sharply reacted to Modi’s model of a polity where Shiv Sena (army of god) calls the shots with impunity—radiating a perpetual sense of insecurity. Amongst Pakistani public, Modi’s domestic policies have reinforced faith in two nations’ theory and that vision of Pakistan’s forefathers for a separate homeland for Muslims was a correct assessment of erratic political behaviour of extremist elements within Hindu community.
Modi’s critics point to a number of recent incidents, including mob killings, as evidence of a growing intolerance among Modi’s Hindu extremist base against India’s mainstream Hindu majority and religious minorities. Visits of Pakistani sportspersons, artists, intellectuals etc. are disrupted by Shiv Sena activists as a matter of routine. Indian prime minister also retains ties with the far-right RSS, a group that many argue is trying to turn India into a Hindu fundamentalist state. “By his rise to power, by his strategic silences, by his smirking apologies, Modi gives succour to the gathering mob,” the Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty wrote in an opinion piece last week.
When people of India are rejecting Modi-ism state by state, Modi thought it appropriate to get a shot in the arm by paying his respects to former colonial masters in London. For the first time since entering office, Modi is on the back foot and was hopeful that trip to Britain will restore him some glory. The red-carpet reception was a stark reversal of fortune for Modi, who had been banned from Britain until three years ago over anti-Muslim riots which killed over 1,000 people in 2002 in Gujarat, while he was chief minister of the state. Modi is believed to have let the carnage go on for three days, he intentionally did not act effectively to arrest the violence; taking the cures from the chief minister, law enforcers also chose to do nothing while looking busy. Later Kangaroo courts absolved Modi of most of the charges; and private entities and individuals who pursued the matter on unofficial channels faced Modi’s and Shiv Sena’s wrath.
And what a dip in British values: “This isn’t just a historic visit. It’s a historic opportunity,” Cameron said ahead of the visit. “It’s an opportunity for two countries, tied by history, people and values, to work together to overcome the biggest challenges of our age.” As one of the outcome of visit, India is buying more Hawk trainer jets for its air force. Britain is bending over backward to enhance trade with India. Cameron promised in 2010 to double Britain’s trade with India by this year. He has visited the country three times, but the trade figure has barely increased. India is one of the most difficult countries of the world to invest in. Ahead of the visit, Modi’s government, last week, announced plans to liberalise its foreign direct investment (FDI) regime in areas including defence, banking and construction. The move is seen as a bid by Modi to counter accusations that his reform drive is stalling, especially highlighted by BJP’s humiliating defeat in recent Bihar elections.
Narendra Modi undertook his visit to the UK under the shadow of unprecedented protests by Indian diaspora, cutting across ethno-sectarian divides, who warned of a “rising climate of fear” under Modi’s rule. Around 200 literary figures signed an open letter urging David Cameron to demand that Modi provide “better protection” for critical voices such as writers and artists and also raise the issue of freedom of expression. Also, around 46 MPs, including the leader of the opposition Labour party Jeremy Corbyn, signed a parliamentary motion urging Cameron to raise human rights issues with the Indian government. Before he even set foot in Britain, he was the target of a high-profile protest in the centre of London. It had a simple message: “Modi not welcome.” That message was briefly projected on Westminster — the meeting place of Parliament. A large number of Muslim and Sikh groups also protested Modi’s arrival in the UK. Kashmiri diaspora also protested, in numbers, Modi’s action in and about Kashmir and demanded the settlement of dispute in-line with the UN resolutions. Estimates have it that protesters outnumbered the state sponsored pro-Modi rally.
Modi‘s government has been anti-Pakistan from day one. It wishes to unilaterally design a bilateral framework, dictating what qualifies for dialogue, and what does not. It wants Pakistan to forget about Kashmir, water, Siachen and other important issues, and only stand accountable to India for terrorism, and that too as interpreted by India. While on the other hand, Pakistan is ready to resume a dialogue process with India simultaneously on all contentious issues. The entire world has endorsed Pakistan’s stance.
India has not responded to Pakistan’s overtures for peace in South Asia, the way it should have. Terrorism against any country is completely unacceptable, and Pakistan itself has not been spared from this scourge. Pakistan is presently fighting one of the biggest inland wars ever fought against terrorists, with little international help. Pakistan’s fight against terrorism is commendable, especially its role in fighting a difficult war in tribal areas— under the banner of Zarb-e-Azb.
Last week, while in Islamabad, former Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid gave an overview of Pakistan-India relationship in recent times, noting that, “Modi is not used to talking to people who disagree with him,” as he illustrated the problematic manner in which the incumbent Indian government approaches dispute resolution with Pakistan.
Strong public consensus in Pakistan for improved relations with India is breaking down due to conditionality and stark messaging by Modi. Trade between the two sides would be favourable for both sides, but it is an unfortunate reality that economic and regional connectivity in South Asia continues to be hostage to political stalemate, largely sustained by Modi’s erratic signalling.
BJP government in India has already wasted too much time, and must now seriously move forward on all bilateral issues with Pakistan. It still remains to be seen whether New Delhi has a clear policy on Pakistan. In contrast, political parties across the political divide in Pakistan are on the same page when it came to making peace with India.
Past year or so have seen a number of setbacks for India-Pakistan relations. There are as many roads to peace and stability as there are to crisis and conflict in South Asia. Modi is still learning to be a statesman; whether Modi shapes India or India shapes Modi is an interesting catch 22 projection!
The Nation November 16, 2015.
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are those of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.