Indian State Elections’ Impact on Modi’s Neighborhood Policy
Photo Credit: India Today
By Tridivesh Singh Maini

Indian State Elections’ Impact on Modi’s Neighborhood Policy

Mar. 30, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s position within his own party and the Indian political landscape has been consolidated with the BJP’s convincing triumphs in Assembly elections in two North Indian states — Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal. Uttar Pradesh is significant because it is India’s most populous state and sends 80 members to the Indian Parliament. In the 2014 Parliamentary elections, the party won 73 seats in UP. The recent verdict in the state elections, where the party won 325 of the 403 seats (a whopping 3/4 majority), shows that Modi’s popularity is intact, and if Parliamentary elections were held today, the BJP would replicate its 2014 performance.

With the UP triumph, the BJP’s position in the Upper House or Rajya Sabha would also be strengthened by 2018, and this may facilitate the smooth passage of certain bills which have been held up so far. In two other states, Manipur and Goa, the BJP emerged as the second largest party, yet it was able to form the government, while the state of Punjab was a face saver for the Congress Party, which secured 77/117 seats.

One thing which the most ardent Modi critics would not deny is that he is a risk taker and does not cave in easily. The question on many people’s minds is whether or not he will utilize his political capital for reorienting ties with countries in the neighborhood, especially Pakistan.

India-Bangladesh relations have improved over the past decade. The strongest reiteration of this point is the signing of the Land Boundary Agreement between both countries in June 2015, during the Indian PM’s Bangladesh visit. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is expected to visit India in April 2017. While in the economic sphere numerous progress has been made and a number of initiatives have been taken to enhance connectivity — land, maritime and rail — Hasina has shown courage, foresight and pragmatism in accepting these opportunities, in spite of domestic opposition.

The Teesta Water Sharing Agreement was scuttled in 2011 by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is also the supremo of the Trinamool Congress. Banerjee was then a part of the Congress-led UPA alliance, and had warned of walking out of the alliance if India went ahead with the agreement. Banerjee who eventually did pull out of the alliance, has sought to mend ties with Bangladesh, and during the Prime Minister’s visit in 2015, she also visited and received a warm welcome. The issue is complex however, and it remains to be seen how PM Modi tackles it given that off-late ties between Modi and Banerjee have not been particularly cordial.

While the New Delhi-Dhaka relationship has grown by leaps and bounds, the New Delhi-Islamabad relationship has been strained, to put it mildly, over the past year. The terror attack on a military base in Uri in September 2016, which took the lives of 19 soldiers, prompted India to retaliate with surgical strikes on terror camps in Pakistan. While for long, New Delhi has sought to draw a line between Pakistan’s civilian leadership and the military, over the past year the civilian leadership has become more belligerent over Kashmir. Instead of addressing India’s concerns pertaining to terrorism emanating from Pakistan, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) has been making provocative statements. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif even having declared slain terrorist and Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani to be a martyr. Sharif has praised Wani on more than one occasion. On Pakistan’s Independence Day on March 23, 2017, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain as well as Pakistan High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit both made provocative speeches. Said the Pakistani President, “Pakistan will continue to extend moral and political support to our Kashmiri brethren.”

Developments in recent weeks however indicate that some sort of thaw between both countries cannot be ruled out. Some of the key developments which point in the above direction are: India recently participated in the Permanent Indus Commission meeting (March 20-21), whereas in the aftermath of the Uri attack it had refused to participate in this meeting. India also sent three MPs, Swapan Dasgupta, Shashi Tharoor, and Meenakshi Lekhi, to attend the Asian Parliamentary Meeting in Pakistan.

Apart from overtures from the Indian side, Islamabad has also taken some steps which to some extent indicate a change of heart, though one will have to wait and watch. These include the house arrest of Jamat Ud Dawa (JUD) chief and co-founder of Lashkar-E-Tayyeba (LET) Hafiz Saeed in January 2017. Some senior Pakistani politicians have also made remarks against the JUD chief. For instance, the Pakistan Defence Minister Khwaja Asif while speaking at a Munich counterterrorism meeting in February 2017 said that Hafiz Saeed is a threat to Pakistan.

India would do well to maintain diplomatic niceties and keep certain channels open. Exploring common ground in connectivity projects, giving a fillip to commercial ties and ties between civil society which are dismissed by many certainly does no harm. In this context, New Delhi has spoken in favor of Pakistani participation in the Islamabad-Teheran-Islamabad (ITI)-Delhi-Kolkata-Dhaka (DKD) train corridor. Originally this corridor was to connect Islamabad and Teheran, and when UNESCAP recommended the extension of this corridor, New Delhi lapped up the proposal. A meeting for the same was held in New Delhi on March 15, 2017. Pakistan’s response to this proposal has been lukewarm so far.

Yet, India should avoid high-level engagement since it will only raise the stakes and generate unnecessary hype. In the past when high-level political engagement created a buzz, it fell flat.

While PM Modi’s position has considerably strengthened after the recent wins in UP and Uttaranchal, and after the BJP formed governments in four states, there still are two other key state elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. It remains to be seen whether the PM will utilize his capital for reaching out to Pakistan.

On the Pakistani side, Prime Minister and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif may not now be in a position to reach out to India, given the fact that general elections in Pakistan are due in 2018. New Delhi in any case, would do well to not put all eggs in the PML-N basket.

Second, Pakistan is firmly aligned with China for its own strategic and economic interests. India-Pakistan engagement cannot really alter this equation. While there are dissenting voices in Pakistan, which have been continuously raising alarm bells about China virtually becoming a hegemon and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project being exploitative, these voices are not given much importance by the government, which is all in favor of the CPEC project and is projecting it as a game changer for Pakistan’s economy. Interestingly, Pakistan is trying to include Gilgit Baltistan as the fifth province. This move has been opposed not just by India, but even by separatist Kashmiri leaders. In a joint statement, Kashmiri separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and Muhammad Yasin Malik declared: “Any proposal to declare Gilgit-Baltistan as the fifth province of Pakistan is unacceptable as it tantamount to changing the disputed nature of Kashmir.” The Government of India too has cautioned against such a move. It would be pertinent to point out that China has continuously opposed a proposal to impose a UN ban on Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) chief Masood Azhar, a dreaded terrorist who masterminded the Pathankot terror attack in January 2016. While the US moved the UN for such a ban in February 2017, China opposed it.

Fourth, India needs to see Pakistan’s bonafides and see whether Pakistan will actually take action against terrorist groups like JEM and LET. Many believe that the action which has been taken so far is a consequence of external pressure and lacks genuine intent. In fact, while on one hand some Pakistani politicians have spoken against Hafiz Saeed, others from the ruling PML-N have continued to defend Saeed. This includes senior ministers like Rana Sanaullah, the Law Minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province.

In conclusion, over the past two decades, India and Pakistan have moved from brief spells of bonhomie to a war-like scenario. It is time for the Indian leadership to be pragmatic and not get swayed either way. PM Modi too may be tempted to make one last attempt at peace with Pakistan, but would be advised against doing so at least in the near future. Keeping some channels open is not a bad idea, but until Pakistan takes substantive action, anything more than that is not advisable. Islamabad needs to change its approach towards terror, have a more independent foreign policy instead of one driven by China, and not remain steeped in the past. In spite of some bold and well-meaning scholars and analysts arguing for the same, this seems highly unlikely. New Delhi’s neighborhood policy, especially towards Bangladesh, may witness some significant developments, but no real changes can be expected in its Pakistan policy.

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