As “go to Pakistan” quickly went from curse to foreign policy initiative, we woke up to find India’s foreign minister in Islamabad, rather than all those “Modi-baiters” and “beef-eaters”. It is a good moment to recap what has comprised a policy on the western neighbour all these months that this BJP-led government has been in charge in New Delhi.
Wounded Tiger, journalist Peter Oborne’s history of cricket and nationhood in Pakistan, recalls how Pakistan came to play its first Test series as an ICC nation in 1952 in India. India must have had supreme confidence at the time to have allowed this just five years after a bloody Partition. It has also been a long time since A.B. Vajpayee, in Parliament, alluded to a visit to the washroom by an eminent MP, who is a peacenik and frequent traveller to the Indo-Pak border, as one to Pakistan. Pandemonium followed, as Pakistan as a term for the washroom was a familiar insult.
Much distance has been travelled since, comprising bus journeys, infiltration, track twos, wars and four-point peace plans. The 26/11 Mumbai attacks brought Pakistan back to the centrestage, but some deft handling in India prevented it from becoming a vicious part of domestic politics, in a way that happened periodically, to obliquely refer to Indian Muslims. But that detente effectively ended with the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. In his articulate and sharp campaign, the current prime minister urged the former UPA 2 government to “doob maro, doob maro (go drown yourselves)” for even meeting Pakistani ministers and officials. In that context, the invitation to the Pakistan PM in May last year was a surprise, but since then, references to Pakistan had harked back to a much earlier time-frame. Until, of course, “go to Pakistan” was taken literally by none else than the affable foreign minister.
The desire to re-hyphenate with Pakistan has been witnessed over the past 20 months or so. Pakistan has become the most domestic of foreign policy issues and the most foreign of domestic policy ones. Senior ministers, MPs and other leaders, with clockwork regularity, urged Indians of a certain description to “go to Pakistan”. Totally unmindful of the enormous hurdles the Pakistan high commission has strewn in the way of the most willing travellers to Pakistan, cabinet ministers and ruling party MPs kept urging departures. Union Minister Giriraj Singh started the trend early, when he said at an April 2014 rally that Narendra Modi’s critics would “have to go to Pakistan”.
The calls to travel came regularly after that, and the BJP president even suggested this year that a fireworks party might break out in Pakistan if the BJP lost Bihar. Whether Pakistani skies sparkled on November 8, we don’t know, as we were slacking on border control that night, what with people on our side of the border busy with their own fireworks/ silent moments. It didn’t stop there. There has been talk of an ordinance to grant citizenship to only Hindu refugees from the subcontinent. There is no law/ ordinance yet, but the call to travel to Pakistan for some and the projection of India as a Hindu homeland have sent a message about the deeper roots of this sort of messaging.
There is little doubt that the same kind of politics haunted the last BJP PM, Vajpayee, who went from eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation to warmly embracing his Pakistani counterpart in Lahore. There is word that Modi would like to add Pakistan to the list of countries he has visited since 2014. A go-to-Pakistan moment is welcome news, but it must account for what the implications of playing alternately with fire and ice, and that too without a discernible plan, can be. The ruling party will eventually have to deal with the consequences of this hare-and-hound dichotomy. Election rhetoric or core vote compulsions that rile up and poke at settled issues cannot easily reconcile with a desire to appear as a genial colossus on the world stage.
The challenge for the Centre is to decide what kind of politics it wants to stand for. There is a huge middle ground between “go to Pakistan” and former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah’s memorable call last year for Modi-voters to go jump “in the sea”. Does the Centre want to meaningfully, and in a sustained way, stake a claim for that no man’s land?