It was four years ago that Narendra Modi rose to power on the bandwagon of Hindutva and populist slogans like ‘development for all’. While the BJP government under Modi has failed to deliver on the lofty promises of economic betterment, they have succeeded in dividing the world’s second most populous nation along communal lines.
Many believe that the party will win the general election in 2019 by sustaining the religious divide and ensuring support of the Hindu nationalist voters.
Political forecasts, somewhat like weather forecasts, have limited accuracy. As a weather forecast can go wrong with the change in wind directions, political projections can go off-track with the changing mood of the electorate. A week ago, Modi’s party suffered major setbacks in the by-elections to four Lok Sabha and 10 assembly constituencies as a united opposition emerged victorious, raising their hopes for bigger electoral battles. The BJP could win only one Lok Sabha seat and two assembly seats, with the opposition parties winning the rest. UP’s Muslims, systematically sidelined by the ruling party, had a special reason to celebrate the victory of the combined opposition’s candidate, Tabassum Hasan – she won by a margin of 55,000 votes over the BJP’s Mriganka Singh.
In another upset a month ago, an alliance between the Congress and Janata Dal formed a ruling coalition despite the BJP having won the highest number of seats in the state of Karnataka. Analysts were quick to point out that the BJP’s defeat in the two by-polls in Uttar Pradesh demonstrated that the opposition’s strategy to bring together Muslims, Dalits, Jats and some other lower castes had paid off. Some analysts went as far as to predict the possibility of a hung parliament in 2019 – a prediction to which the BJP retorted as being ‘grossly exaggerated’. The ruling party has enough statistics to show that Modi remains the most popular leader in the country.
Among the questions being raised, one is whether Modi and Co would review their anti-minority grudge, particularly against the more than 200 million Indian Muslims. The second issue of concern is if the BJP’s other two Islamophobic agenda items – hostility towards Pakistan and increased repression of the Kashmiris – can also be revised to engender a more harmonious environment within India and the Subcontinent.
On the positive side, there has been an announcement by the military authorities in Pakistan and India to bring an end to violence along the Line of Control and Working Boundary. This declaration of intent, if carried through, would be a significant step towards reducing tensions between the two states. Both sides have also committed to ensure peace and avoid hardships to the civilians living along the borders.
However, scepticism about the declaration having a lasting effect is still in the air, given the past experiences of shelling being resumed later if not sooner. In an optimistic scenario, the understanding reached for keeping the LoC and Working Boundary tranquil, could be part of a larger move towards a detente, after a spell of highly tensed ties. The answer depends on whether the Modi-led government will commit to a strategic rethink.
Modi’s anti-Pakistan diplomatic agenda has met with limited success since it denied Islamabad its turn to host the Saarc summit. India has neither succeeded in isolating Pakistan, with Modi almost retracting from his claim to do so. Anti-Pakistan propaganda, strong-arm tactics in Kashmir and increased violence along the LoC have all ended in diminishing returns. Is it time to change the game, Indian strategists may wonder. But hawks still hold sway as External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj again used the anti-terrorism argument for not holding talks with Pakistan.
Strangely, although sadly, while Pakistan is under the pressure of the Financial Action Task Force and some countries, there is little acknowledgment of the fact that Pakistan continues to suffer more terrorism than India. The American pretence too was shattered as it stayed placing Khorasani under the UN’s sanctions list. Furthermore, Jadhav’s detention only testified to what Modi and his national security adviser had forewarned about: to bleed Pakistan in the province of Balochistan.
The good news is that the two sides keep talking. National security advisers meet, hopefully to keep tensions at a manageable level. The recent Track-II session in Islamabad had both the governments’ backing. The understanding reached between the two DGMOs on stopping violence along the LoC and Working Boundary is a significant step forward. There are other factors at play as well. Both India and the US have not achieved the expected gains from their much hyped strategic partnership. There are limits to how much India can agree to the US’ designs against China and Russia. Modi’s most recent forays were aimed at mending fences with these two powers.
While addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Modi said that, “Asia and the world will have a better future if India and China worked together in trust and confidence.” He made references to India’s strategic partnerships with the US, Russia and Asean, citing the need of an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. He added that an Asia of rivalries will hold the region back, while an Asia of cooperation will shape the century. His remarks were welcomed by a Chinese general attending the forum as a positive assessment of ties between the two countries.
Most observers see very little scope for a breakthrough between the two countries. Perhaps, Modi can help confound the ‘pundits’.