The policy wonks may be frothing at the mouth but the Modi government’s decision to call off Indo-Pak talks has gone down very well with the BJPp’s domestic constituency. It enhances Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as a tough leader who will brook no nonsense. It also delights the cadre who see him as an inspirational figure over and above the Sangh leadership that often shifts uneasily these days and periodically feels compelled to make statements to signify its own importance in the universe now ordered by Modi.
The move to act tough with a Pakistan (which a Sangh parivar strategist describes “as a country in a meltdown that is not worth talking to at this point”) is expected to have a direct electoral benefit in Jammu, where the BJP hopes to edge out the Congress when state elections take place in J&K later this year. BJP sources say they aim to be in a position where the party that does well in the Valley will have to come to an arrangement with it to form government. In Maharashtra too where state elections take place within two months, the BJP hopes to stay a nose ahead of the Shiv Sena and thereby have its own chief minister. With the Sena as partner, it makes sense for Modi to come across as the rational tough guy as opposed to the irrational hysterics the Sena indulges in at the mention of the P-word.
It is often said that the past offers clues to understanding the future. Pakistan has always been a volatile domestic card for the BJP. Former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee played both the dove and hawk in his policies towards Pakistan during his six-year tenure. A desire to go down in history as the humanist who went for peace in the subcontinent is what genuinely drove Vajpayee. But it was post the Kargil war, in 1999, that Vajpayee was at the peak of his popularity. It was also then that he acquired his “teflon man” image.
A desire to go down in history as the humanist who went for peace is what drove Vajpayee. But Advani hemmed him in.
Two years later, in July 2001, Vajpayee invited then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf (the man behind the Kargil incursions) for the Agra summit, one of the most hyped-up India-Pakistan encounters to take place in recent years. But then, Vajpayee was completely hemmed in, having to cross-check every move with his deputy, L.K. Advani. The summit failed and that was also the time when rumours about the PM’s poor health began to spread, floated by his own partymen and the larger ideological parivar. As a BJP minister explains it, “Vajpayee was never the leader of the cadre then, Advani was. But Modi now is both leader of the cadre and the people. He can invite Nawaz Sharif and no one will really object. He can reject talks on what most would see as valid grounds, and only a section that we see as the irrelevant editorial writers would get upset.”
For the bottomline is this: the BJP and RSS sit uneasy with any peace move towards Pakistan. Here’s what happened in January 2004, just months before the general elections that the NDA would lose, when Vajpayee went to Islamabad for a SAARC summit and then insisted on meeting Musharraf and the Pakistani leadership on the sidelines. That ended the deep freeze post-Agra: Indo-Pak talks began the next month and in March 2004, India went to Pakistan for a cricket series between the two countries after 15 years.
At the time, this correspondent had written: “Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee may well be accused of thrusting ‘peace’ on a bewildered BJP and the Sangh parivar.” Then the BJP had reacted very cautiously to Vajpayee’s initiatives. The tradition of party functionaries gathering at his Race Course Road residence after a foreign visit was dispensed with as was the party’s daily press briefing. Instead, then party president Venkaiah Naidu issued a terse press statement: “The BJP is of the view that talks with Pakistan will only be meaningful if cross-border terrorism comes to an end.” What did come to an end was Vajpayee’s regime that lost in 2004 in spite of ‘India Shining’ and what the then PMO called the “harmony vote”.
Then and now, the majority view in the parivar is that “hugging Pakistanis is not an agenda that will naturally enthuse the rank and file”. A a decade ago, the VHP’s Giriraj Kishore told Outlook: “Vajpayee’s efforts are bakwaas (rubbish). Since the days of Mohammed Ghori, we have been trying to talk reason with these people. But it is of no use.” Ten years down, the stature of the Pakistani leadership is more diminished and the country in greater chaos. Seshadri Chari who headed the BJP’s foreign affairs cell says: “Relations will not improve but could talks have had any meaning with the chaos in Pakistan?”
Most BJP leaders say the reasons for Modi to engage with Pakistan are becoming fewer and fewer. Unlike Vajpayee, Modi does not need to look over his shoulder to watch his own colleagues or allies. He has also shown the capacity to ignore US pressure, as shown by the positions recently taken by India at the WTO. As long as Modi’s domestic popularity remains intact, he has declared publicly that he does not care about opinions of the Delhi establishment or about editorials written in the western press. Vladimir Modi is setting new rules of engagement.