A Rightist Government And India’s Immediate Neighbours
Normally, run-of-the-mill issues like corruption, price rise, religion and caste dominate the election discourse in India. In general elections 2014, issues having the potential of affecting India’s relations with her immediate neighbours are being pelted out by the political parties and their mascots. On the face of it, these are mere election rhetoric. Nothing will materially change if the Congress party retains the power. In case, a rightist government comes to power at the centre, things are set to change.
Indian foreign policy moves in the well-treaded orbits; barring minor aberrations, it does not fluctuate much. India’s relations with her immediate neighbours have more or less congealed on the lines of love-hate reciprocity.
Mood in the India’s foreign affairs ministry was upbeat when Nawaz Sharif won May 2013 general elections in Pakistan. Mutual settlement of many vexing issues was expected. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself was hopeful of normalising the bilateral relations. But that was not to be. We had some gruesome and violent incidents on the line of control (LOC). In March 2014, with an eye on Indian elections, Pakistan, after much hype, quietly shelved the issue of granting of Most Favoured Nation status to India—a reciprocation which is pending since 1996.
Rhetoric of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders is being keenly followed and even reacted upon by neighbouring countries. In the run-up to the elections, NaMo juggernaut has ruffled many feathers—of political rivals and the neighbours. Pakistan finds special place in our love-hate relationship. On March 26, 2014, BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had addressed a big election rally in Hiranagar, Jammu and on March 28, there was a terror attack in Kathua, a border town 30 km south-west of Hiranagar, killing three people. The terrorists had sneaked in from across the international border.
Anti-Pakistan rhetoric in Indian elections pours in effortlessly as one criticises the government for inaction in curbing terrorism. The discourse becomes seamless as it takes Kashmir, Pakistan’s involvement in abetting terror, Indian Muslims and Bangladeshis in its wake to make an inflammatory recipe for all.
BJP’s in its election manifesto has pledged to revise and update India’s nuclear policy to make it relevant to challenges of current times, which apparently hinted towards abandoning ‘no-first-use’ commitment. It is loaded with international ramifications and with respect to China and Pakistan, raises grave strategic concerns.
It all started with a BJP’s rumoured overtures to Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani for initiating a dialogue on Kashmir issue, which provided ammo to its political rivals. Pakistan responded by resorting to unprovoked firing across the LOC and sending bands of terrorists to infiltrate.
What drew the sharpest reaction from Pakistan was an interview of Narendra Modi given to a vernacular television news channel in which he reiterated his resolve of bringing back Dawood Ibrahim—the fugitive wanted for 1993 Mumbai blasts, who has been hiding in Pakistan since then. Pakistan’s interior minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan called Modi’s statement ‘shameful and irresponsible’. Going a step further, General Raheel Sharif, chief of army staff while paying tribute to martyrs ratcheted up Kashmir issue calling it as ‘jugular vein’ of Pakistan.
Before the dust could settle over Dawood remark, Modi fired another salvo on April 28 in Serampore, West Bengal, by issuing ultimatum to all Bangladeshi migrants to leave India after May 16 . Expressing her concern Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh Prime Minister reportedly termed Modi’s diatribe as ‘unnecessary and unwarranted’. On May 02, ethnic conflict erupted in Assam’s Kokrajhar and Baksa districts leaving 32 Bengali speaking Muslim settlers dead.
It is a common perception that during National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime (1998-2004), India’s relations with Pakistan had blossomed, culminating into signing of Lahore Declaration in February 1999. But that is a half picture, as the bonhomie was short lived. During the NDA regime, apart from waging proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Pakistan had betrayed the spirit of friendship by occupying Kargil heights leading to Kargil War (May-July 1999), plotting the Indian Airline Flight 814’s hijack to Kandhar (December 1999), despatching suicide bombers to target J&K Assembly and sending in terrorists to attack Indian Parliament (December 2001).
A BJP-led government at the Centre will be seen as the ascension of Hindutva in India. A prejudiced view is bound to prevail amongst the policymakers (read army, ISI and radicals) in Pakistan while calibrating their response towards India. Pakistan would surely test the waters to gauge Modi’s response by upping the ante in Kashmir or orchestrating terror strikes in hinterland. Any Kandhar-like indecision or faltering by the government will give moral ascendancy to Pakistan against ‘infidel’ India.
In fact, India finds herself quite isolated in South Asia. China has been able to carve out a wider influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives threatening the Indian interests. It should not come to us as a surprise, if our neighbours are willing to play proxy on China’s behalf to put India in a tight spot.
Post-withdrawal of the US and NATO-ISAF forces from Afghanistan, Indian position in Afghanistan becomes precarious. China’s frequent incursions along the line of actual control have been a major embarrassment to the previous government. In current summer season Pakistan can step up terror activities in Kashmir. It will be diplomatically imprudent to press home the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants aggressively with Sheikh Hasina, India’s only friend in the neighbourhood. Issue of human rights of Sri Lankan Tamils has proved to be another spoiler of bilateral relations with Sri Lanka. Live foreign policy issues in the immediate neighbourhood would need immediate attention and deft handling by the next government.
Internal turmoil in Pakistan suggests that Kashmir may become a flash point once again. To save the country from disintegration reinvigorating Kashmir issue is the best bet for Pakistan. The army and ISI bosses have been able to browbeat Nawaz Sharif into submission. Of late, activities of the pro-Pakistan terror groups have intensified in the POK and Northern Areas. We may witness stepped up trans-LOC firing, infiltration and terror strikes in Kashmir valley and border areas of Jammu.
Border States of J&K, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu whose ruling political parties are not aligned to BJP in the general elections may pose problems in handling of foreign relations. Omar Abdullah has been vociferous over BJP’s election manifesto over its resolve to abrogate Article 370. Mamta Banerjee has been lambasting Modi and the BJP on various issues particularly the illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Jayalalithaa will not lose any opportunity to coerce centre into cornering Sri Lanka on human rights violations issue in international forum. So, before normalising relations with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Modi will have to first mollify these loose cannons.
India’s belligerent neighbours will certainly try to draw out new government into controversies and petty squabbles to gauge its responses. There are many low-cost options with our neighbours which can escalate a situation meriting a conventional military response. After all, it cost Pakistan just five terrorists to attack Indian Parliament, which resulted into a general mobilisation of armed forces in 2001.
Bellicosity and rhetoric may help BJP win elections, but the handling of relations with India’s neighbours is a different ball game, needing patience, astuteness and statesmanship. The new government should focus on economy, capacity building and forging of alliances with neighbours rather than getting bogged down with contentious issues to start with.
By Colonel (Retd) US Rathore