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State assembly elections in India generally elicit tepid international interest. But the recently concluded polls in five states, particularly Uttar Pradesh—politically the most important of them all—were watched with the keenest interest by outside observers.
The significance of the BJP’s victory, especially its star campaigner Narendra Modi’s spiralling political stocks after the stunning results, and what it means for India and its relations with other countries are now being closely analysed across the world.
Perhaps, nowhere does it gather more salience than in Pakistan, a country that habitually keeps a close tab on Indian developments. The BJP’s emphatic victory in UP and its ability to form governments elsewhere too were therefore rightly seen in Islamabad as a further consolidation of Modi’s enormous clout over the Indian polity.
But whether this would translate into a renewed effort by the Indian premier to reach out to Pakistan and renew the stalled dialogue is a question that is uppermost in minds in Pakistan and elsewhere.
In a way, the possibility of resumption of the Indo-Pak engagement began much before the recently-concluded elections, when the two sides released a number of civilian prisoners from each other’s jails and finally paved the way for restarting the Permanent Indus Commission talks, scheduled now for March 19 and 20 in Lahore. PM Modi had made it clear that “blood and water” cannot flow together, alluding to incidents of terror that continued across the border into India from Pakistan. The fact that the water talks are taking place after a gap of nearly two years have raised hope in the two nations. Those hopes are heightened, now that state polls are out of the way and what with a resounding victory for the BJP in UP, PM Modi is in a much better frame of mind to relook at mending relations with Islamabad.
But this also begs an important question that Indians often ask—why are the behaviour of hardliners in the two countries so different? Indian leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee and later Modi, both perceived as hardliners, had gone out of their way to reach out to Pakistan. Vajpayee took the peace bus to Lahore in February 1999 and even visited Minar-e-Pakistan—to give the symbolic assurance that the existence of Pakistan, despite a traumatic Partition, was an acceptable reality for India.
The Pakistan military will not forget Modi’s claim in Bangladesh that India helped in its formation.
One also can’t fault Modi for not trying to reach out. He began by inviting Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, along with other South Asian leaders, to his inaugural ceremony in May 2014. Later, he famously made an impromptu visit to Lahore in December 2015 from Kabul to wish Sharif on his birthday and push forward the impending talks. The terror attack from Pakistan on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot within a few days put paid to that grand effort.
Yet, in glaring contrast, Pakistani hardliners—say someone like Nawaz Sharif—never take the risk of reaching out to India with their own set of ideas and suggestions that could help move toward that seemingly unreachable ideal of lasting peace.
“There is a deep suspicion of India that does not go away with a few visits,” says Pakistani commentator Ayesha Siddiqa. According to Siddiqa, visits will not have an impact on a relationship that seems to be woven around a territorial dispute, but has in years become ideological. Within that framework, “A Muslim Pakistan cannot trust a Hindu India.” In addition to this, she says there are elements such as the Pakistani military being uncomfortable with civilian governments trying to mend fences with India. “The military in Pakistan will never allow a civilian dispensation to privately build ties with India.”
Siddiqa points out that during the Indian PM’s Lahore visit, for example, Nawaz Sharif took Modi home, but without any general or foreign office personnel being present at the meeting, raising suspicion. Moreover, with Modi claiming in Bangladesh that India helped in the making of the country, the military will not offer an olive branch. There is now a huge effort to “de-Indianise” Pakistani society, says Siddiqa. “So the temperature may go down but the context will not change.”
Other experts feel that the different approaches the two countries adopt towards each other stem from the evolution of their respective societies. “Indian and Pakistani hardliners operate in different political contexts, say for instance, the Kashmir issue—a bone of contention,” says veteran British South Asia watcher and historian at Southampton University Ian Talbot.
“The Indian scene is more conducive to compromise and wider discussion and debate because of the tradition of a stronger civil society,” says Talbot. “Debate within Pakistan is much more narrowly circumscribed even during periods of civilian rule,” he adds. This, he feels, arises not just from the military/security service presence, but the influence of public opinion articulated vociferously through Islamic groups. Perhaps, as a result, there is a greater sense that Kashmir is not something that can be compromised on in any way. It is regarded as more non-negotiable by hardliners who are, as a consequence, more hardline than their Indian counterparts.
“Significantly, Musharraf, secure in the knowledge that he did not have to bow to public opinion, was able to make more bold steps on Kashmir—despite his Kargil involvement—than Nawaz Sharif has done,” says Talbot.
But, for former MEA secretary Vivek Katju, “It is a mistake to equate the Indian political structure with the one in Pakistan.” He points out, “Here the prime minister can take a decision on his own, perhaps in consultation with his senior cabinet colleagues, when he wants to make peace overtures towards Pakistan. But in Pakistan a civilian leader is always constrained by the army, which has the last word on the country’s policy towards India.”
Katju argues that the only time this pattern is broken is when an army general comes to power through a coup and then can decide on his India policy. “But otherwise, the views of the civilian government is always subjected to the army’s approval,” says Katju, who for several years had been in charge of the foreign ministry’s Pakistan desk.
The different approaches of the two countries towards engaging with each other notwithstanding, the question remains as to how realistic it is to expect the resumption of the stalled India-Pakistan dialogue.
Pakistani officials point out that resumption of talks is a strong possibility and though initially it can start at the level of the two NSAs, with the focus invariably on terrorism, for the dialogue to be sustained it also has to bring in other issues, like Kashmir, to the table. “Terrorism can be the focus to begin with, but it cannot end only with that issue. Unless there is a serious dialogue on Kashmir it will be difficult to take the talks process forward,” says a senior Pakistani diplomat.
But while the sequencing of important issues could itself be a subject for discussions—helping eventually in resumption of the talks, some sections also point to the possible pressure that might bear down upon the Pakistani PM in the coming days. Unlike his Indian counterpart Modi, who—especially after his recent high—is in total control of the situation, Sharif is under a lot of political cloud over his involvement in the Panama Papers scandal. His political opponents are baying for his blood after the leaked documents linked his name with huge sums of unaccounted money that he seemed to have made. The issue is now being investigated by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. If it rules that Sharif will have to step down till a proper enquiry is conducted in this sordid affair, Pakistan is due for a renewed phase of political uncertainty.
Will Sharif be in a position to risk responding to Modi, if and when his Indian counterpart makes a fresh attempt to reach out to him, when he is unsure about his own political future? The constant, hovering clouds over Pakistani democracy make such an act of political derring-do doubly dangerous.