BJP governments have been ousted in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. India is digesting the lessons from these defeats as it looks forward to the general election in 2019. Many policies will come under review within the BJP, including perhaps the religious fervour frequently unleashed on the minority communities. Any review should also include a look at the Subcontinent where India is now incontestably the dominant state.
Neighbouring Pakistan finally recognised this when its prime minister and army chief together expressed the desire to normalise relations with India through “talks and trade”. The BJP government’s response to the Kartarpur Corridor was cold. A gutted SAARC was once again kicked aside by New Delhi. On December 11, Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Tehmina Janjua, said Pakistan would continue its efforts for peace in its neighbourhood “despite New Delhi’s negative attitude” and called upon world powers to support Islamabad’s posture of peace with India.
The Kartarpur Corridor overture by a besieged Pakistan was seen realistically by some Indian observers. Strategist C Raja Mohan conceded it wouldn’t take off but hoped it could: “PM Modi, however, might believe that he has little to lose by trying again and India is strong enough to take some political risks with Pakistan. And if the Kartarpur corridor works out well, there could be room to expand his religious diplomacy .”
But there were others who wanted to remind the BJP of India’s ultimate status as a world power, not a little bolstered by its economic achievement and growing influence. Such Indian thinkers wish to persuade the BJP to change policy in the neighbourhood before becoming a power to reckon with at the international level. One such scholar is Bharat Karnad, who takes issue with Modi’s Pakistan policy in Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition: “The irony is the Modi regime’s strongly held view of not talking with Pakistan until it ends the terror campaign plays into Pakistani strategy. So, the Pakistani Army will continue with its successful kutayuddha — covert war in J&K.”
Karnad sees the BJP’s Hindutva drive at home as shaping the perception of the other Muslim states in the region. The mob violence in the streets of India can’t be seen as something “unhostile” in the Maldives where the government, instead of reaching out to a “generous” India, may “counter the possibility of Indian interference in its internal politics by forging military bonds with China, even allowing it to establish an ‘ocean station’ in the Indian Ocean for Chinese submarines”.
India’s relations with Bangladesh have never been better. Dhaka’s loyalty to New Delhi is on a rebound from its separation from Pakistan, which is almost ideological now on the basis of opposed nationalisms. But the religious Islamic upsurge there parallels the religious bullying going on in India. Its constitution is secular like India’s but its secular ruling party remains unwilling to clean up the religious “accretions” stuffed into it by military rulers now declared unlawful by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.
But Karnad has other fears: “The Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh, while professing friendship with India… has justified taking large loans from China because ‘have to take whatever funds come to Bangladesh for the purpose of development’, adding pointedly that ‘India should also maintain cordial relationship with all its neighbours’.”
Pakistan is more willing today than ever before to talk trade — read normalisation — that will bring India into Pakistan through investment riding on infrastructural connections. The “connectivity” posited by former prime minister Manmohan Singh is today looking more feasible. Most heretofore hawkish Pakistani diplomats recommend connectivity through a trade corridor linking India with Afghanistan through Pakistan, bringing about the “co-dependency” that obviates war and disarms suspicion. There is enough evidence that China wants this and Pakistan is less and less able to ignore advice from Beijing. If Pakistan backtracks from the policy clearly expressed by Prime Minister Imran Khan, it will only redouble the misery of a population coping with a collapsing economy.
The writer is consulting editor,