Shifting Sands: How Modi’s Win Affects the Region

Shifting Sands: How Modi’s Win Affects the Region
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s guest list for his second term inauguration tells a lot about the foreign policy direction he is likely to pursue during his next five years in office. The message for Islamabad is very clear that Modi’s government will persist with its policy of not engaging with Pakistan.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) achieved a landslide victory in the Lok Sabha elections. The political narrative through which Modi motivated his hard line, conservative and ultra-nationalist voter base was essentially anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan. He convinced the extremist Hindus that he was their best choice for keeping 190 million Indian Muslims at bay and standing up to Pakistan, which had been consistently presented to Indian people as an existential threat.

Performance of Modi, who had won the 2014 elections on the basis of perceptions that he was a deliverer on governance and economy, in his 2014-19 tenure was below average and not strong enough to have earned him another term. This is not some armchair analysis. It was rather proven by the state elections held in December, in which BJP lost key states. But, then Pulwama happened, handing Modi an opportunity to change the odds that were stacked against him. The India-Pakistan stand-off that followed was then successfully used by Modi to his political advantage.

It does not require rocket science to predict how a person, who got an overwhelming support for his anti-Pakistan rhetoric and spewing hate against Indian Muslims, would conduct himself in his second term. Getting a second term, by the way, is no small feat in Indian politics. Modi, by winning another tenure, has joined the illustrious league of Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the other Indian leaders to have been re-elected.

Nonetheless, as a courtesy Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted felicitations for Modi on his party’s electoral success to which he responded saying he had always “given primacy to peace and development in our region.” Later Khan called Modi to greet him.

Modi during the tele-conversation stressed on “creating trust and an environment free of violence and terrorism.” That is sort of the standard line on Pakistan that Indian government has followed.

If someone, based on these exchanges and an interaction between Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on the margins of Shanghai Cooperation Organization ministerial, built hopes about relations turning for better, then it would be too naïve of him. It should be recalled that PM Khan had, couple of months ago, hoped that Modi’s win would pave way for better ties. His assumption was theoretical. He believed that Modi with stronger nationalist credentials stood better chance of normalizing with Pakistan than any other Indian politician. The ground situation is, however, very different from that rather simplistic view. Modi’s mandate is anti-Pakistan.

The guest list for Modi’s second term inauguration includes leaders from the ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)’— Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan – President of the Kyrgyz Republic Sooronbay Jeenbekov, as the current Chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Prime Minister of Mauritius Pravind Kumar Jugnauth.

Indian External Affairs Ministry said that the guest list was “in line with government’s focus on its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.”

The statement here is crystal clear. India has defined its neighbourhood and it is no more SAARC. SAARC’s sin is none other than that it has Pakistan as one of its member. India’s priority is now BIMSTEC. The shift towards BIMSTEC is India’s new regional multilateralism minus Pakistan.

India has been blocking the convening of SAARC summit since 2016 effectively putting the already dysfunctional regional grouping in a moribund state. The 2016 Summit was to be hosted by Pakistan.

Islamabad Policy Institute, which undertook a study on Indian elections, in its analysis noted: “As things stand, an immediate breakthrough in relations with Pakistan appears highly unlikely. It is anticipated that BJP government in its second tenure would adopt a more aggressive posture towards Pakistan, because of its belief that it was ultimately its anti-Pakistan credentials that earned it another term despite poor performance over the past five years.”

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi concurs with this assessment. In a media talk, he believed that it would be difficult for Modi to row back after taking a hard line on Pakistan during his last tenure and more particularly during the election campaign. He was explaining why PM Khan did not get an invite from Delhi.

How can this logjam be overcome?

The prospects of any progress are quite dim. Even if PM Khan and PM Modi meet on the side lines of SCO Summit next month, the interaction would not be enough to melt the ice or mark a major shift in the direction the relationship has taken.

One must not forget participation of former PM Nawaz Sharif in Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014, Ufa meeting, and Modi’s Lahore stopover. None of that progressed into sustained improvement in ties. Undoubtedly, attacks by non-state actors prevented progress. But at the same time we cannot ignore that Pakistan kept asking India to insulate the engagement process from terrorism and it was India that wasn’t ready for it.

Kashmir dispute and Indian ‘terrorism concerns’ notwithstanding, it is India’s hegemonic mindset that is the biggest obstacle to Pak-India normalisation.

Even today it is India that has to rethink its position, because Pakistan has all along been pro-engagement. On the Pakistani side, the situation is even better because it is first time over the past 11 years that a civilian government, which is in lockstep with the army, is in office.