Raja-Mandala: Modi’s Pakistan opportunity

He must ignore the scepticism in Delhi. There is support, across a large number of political constituencies, for his Pak policy

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published:December 29, 2015 12:00 am
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The conventional wisdom in Delhi is that a serious engagement with Pakistan is not worth the trouble. It is no surprise, therefore, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bold outreach to Pakistan has generated little enthusiasm among Delhi’s talking heads. But look beyond Delhi, and you might notice considerable support — including from many of the PM’s sworn political adversaries.

Consider, for example, the reactions to Modi’s Christmas Day para-drop on Lahore. The Congress party was quick to scoff at the government’s flip-flops on Pakistan. It is plain that the Congress is merely doing what the BJP did to it during the decade-long UPA rule.
The NDA, which initiated the peace process with Pakistan under far more difficult circumstances, was quick to attack Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for staying the course that his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had set for Pakistan.

Ignore the revenge politics of the Congress, and the picture gets very interesting. There is probably no political formation in the country that is more hostile to the PM and his ideological “parivar” than the Communist parties. But the CPI and CPM were among the first to welcome Modi’s Pakistan initiative. The Indian communists, after all, are programmatically committed to finding peace with Pakistan.

In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar are equally committed to good neighbourly relations with Pakistan. As the inheritors of Ram Manohar Lohia’s socialist legacy, these “backward” leaders have long championed secularism at home and normalisation of relations with Pakistan.

Nitish Kumar, who is emerging as a rallying figure for the anti-BJP forces in the heartland, made a very impressive visit to Pakistan as chief minister of Bihar in 2012. President Asif Ali Zardari hosted him for a banquet and there was much talk of Pakistan learning from Bihar’s turnaround under Nitish Kumar.

Turn your gaze to the states bordering Pakistan in the north-west, and you will find near unanimous political support for Modi’s outreach to Nawaz Sharif. In the Kashmir valley, the ruling People’s Democratic Party, the opposition National Conference and the separatist groups have all supported Modi’s effort to renew the dialogue with Pakistan.

In Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the BJP’s long-standing political partner, has long sought normalisation of relations with Pakistan. Parkash Singh Badal, the veteran Akali leader and chief minister of Punjab, was on the bus that took Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee across the Wagah border in February 1999.

At the end of 2012, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal had visited Lahore and unveiled an agenda for comprehensive cooperation between the two Punjabs. But as military tensions on the border escalated soon after, the Akali hopes turned sour.

Much credit for promoting cooperation across the Radcliffe Line in Punjab should go to the Congress leader, Captain Amarinder Singh, who was chief minister during 2002-07, for launching a very promising set of exchanges with the provincial government in Lahore. No wonder, the captain’s response to Modi’s Pakistan surprise visit was very different from the churlishness of Congress leaders in Delhi.

In Punjab, which paid with its blood for the Partition of the province and the subcontinent, there is great yearning today for reconciliation.

That sentiment extends to Haryana, which was once part of undivided Punjab. When the peace process began to gain traction in 2004, the then chief minister of Haryana, Omprakash Chautala, visited Pakistan to seek greater transborder cooperation.

Modi can easily build on the aspirations in the western states by encouraging the chief ministers of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana — to establish contact and communication with their counterparts in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. All of them either belong to the BJP or its allies.
Jammu and Kashmir, of course, is in a category all of its own. The BJP, which is ruling the state in coalition with the PDP, is already committed to a substantive agenda of cooperation with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

The common minimum programme of the two parties issued earlier this year wants to enhance “people to people contact” across the LoC, take “travel, commerce, trade and business across the LoC to the next level” and open “new routes across all three regions to enhancing connectivity.”

What comes across is a very important political fact: Delhi’s entrenched pessimism on Pakistan is not in tune with the interests of a large number of political constituencies that want a more relaxed relationship between the two countries.

If he can unleash these positive forces and check the sceptics in his own party, Modi might generate a strong domestic support base for his Pakistan initiative. That in turn would make it a lot easier for the PM to handle the many imponderables in engaging Pakistan and experiment with a range of new diplomatic initiatives.

The writer is consulting editor on foreign affairs with ‘The Indian Express’ and distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.