India’s election: populism and the possibility of peace

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By Rustam Shah Mohmand

As expected, India’s ruling Bhartia Janata Party (BJP) has won a resounding victory in the country’s just concluded general election. What was not anticipated however, was the sheer margin of the BJP’s victory which set new records in India. It was a clear win for populist policies that the party and its Prime Minister projected in areas like national security, minorities and the robust assertion of its core ideology of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism, which appealed to the electorate on issues like reducing poverty and unemployment. 

The Modi magic has worked, and the opposition, the Congress party, has suffered yet another humiliating set-back. But what exactly went right for BJP ? The answer lies in a whole range of strategies. 

Modi’s slogan of a nationalist India led by a strong leader was perhaps the most dominant factor in ensuring a landslide victory for the BJP. He took security issues to center stage, almost completely overshadowing problems of unemployment, poverty and crisis in the agriculture sector.  

Through this, the BJP created the impression that it alone was the guarantor for safeguarding India’s supreme national interests in an era of rising tensions with China and Pakistan. It appealed to the ambitions, desires and sentiments of  the majority Hindu population by projecting itself as an uncompromising champion of the ultra right Hindu-dominated state. It connected with the aspirations of the common man and moreover, the party’s anti- minority stance played out well in contrast to Congress’s emphasis on secularism, tolerance and respect for non-Hindu ethnic groups. 

In their enthusiasm for giving a massive mandate to the BJP, rank and file Indians appear to have ignored, for the time being, issues like unemployment, the plight of farmers, wide income disparities and poverty. 

In February this year, after 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers were killed in Indian-administered Kashmir in a bombing claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group, the narrative changed in BJP’s favour entirely. The optics of the attack and the narrative following it revealed threats to national security and the people of India decided to align themselves with the leader who said he would take the bold decisions to protect national interests regardless of party politics. 

The BJP’s huge victory is also in line with current trends worldwide, where right-wing nationalist agendas win precedence over socio-economic issues.

But now that Modi has emerged the undisputed leader of India for the next five years, an important question for the region is: What is in store for India-Pakistan relations after such a convincing electoral victory by the BJP?

It is possible that riding the crest of a wave of popularity, Modi might spring a surprise and reach out to Pakistan in a meaningful and constructive way to further consolidate his position as leader of the world’s largest democracy. If history is any guide, after such remarkable success, he will attempt to resolve outstanding disputes between the two countries. And if he shows any proclivity and engagement for a reconciliation, he will find enormous reciprocity from Islamabad.

Modi’s resounding victory and second term therefore, could be the beginning of a sustained process to normalize relations between the two countries. In a climate of trust, the two nuclear armed neighbours could take up issues like Kashmir and water-sharing, and seek to find durable solutions that are compatible with norms of justice and that reflect the aspirations of the people.

Only strong leaders with the unequivocal backing of their people can take tough decisions that affect the destinies of millions. And perhaps, for India and Pakistan, that moment has come now.

This may sound utopian, but it is also an opinion served by countless historical examples. Added to that is the fact that the confrontation and hostility has so far achieved nothing. 

With an Imran Khan led government keen to turn over a new leaf, the two countries will be expected to initiate a new phase of relations. Going into any talks, Islamabad must realize that complete independence for Kashmir is simply out of the question because it would trigger separatist movements across the length and breadth of India and de-stabilize the region-  and Pakistan would not be excluded from the instability. 

Equally important, India must recognize that the current situation in Kashmir is unsustainable. Sooner or later, Delhi has to acknowledge the objective realities of reaching out to the people of Kashmir to craft a new approach and policy that is in sync with their hopes and wishes. This could mean more autonomy and a special status for the state. 

These are big agendas for both Khan and Modi, but they could make history. Normalization of relations could unleash a hidden potential in both countries to address poverty, climate change, cultural and commercial ties as well as economic prosperity. That could change the destiny of South Asia and its 1.5 billion people.

(The author Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has

served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner

Refugees for a decade.)