By all accounts, the prime ministerial candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr Narendra Modi, is a front-runner for the post and there is a distinct possibility that he may become Prime Minister of India in May. Mr Modi owes his rise to the twin factors of a hard-nosed Hindu nationalist political agenda and a pro-development platform which though distinctly pro-industry made a mark as an efficient one.
Mr Modi has been India’s most controversial political leader for more than a decade and opinions on him are sharply divided. People label him either a “mass murderer” or a “development messiah” depending on the perspective from which they are evaluating Mr Modi. There is no denying that opinions on him are so polarised because of the Gujarat riots in 2002 when more than a thousand people were killed in horrific Hindu-Muslim clashes.
With that spectre of Mr Modi, a question has been uppermost in the minds of most: What will be Mr Modi’s foreign policy in regard to India’s neighbours and specifically Pakistan. Will he be as hard-nosed and vitriol-dripping as he has been in the past? During the Kargil conflict in 1999, Mr Modi was asked in a TV show how India should respond to provocations from Islamabad. His answer was: “Chicken biryani nahi, bullet ka jawab bomb se diya jayega”.
[quote]His Pakistan policy would also depend primarily on the nature of his mandate[/quote]
Later, during the communally charged electoral campaign in 2002, Mr Modi routinely accused Muslims in Gujarat of having links with anti-India forces in Pakistan and frequently dragged the name of the then Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf. He simply called him Miyan Musharraf, in a derogatory manner.
So will Mr Modi as Prime Minister will be reluctant to pursue dialogue for normalising ties with Pakistan? Or will he go one step further to push the already delicate ties to the brink once more? Or will Mr Modi, in complete contrast to expectations, actually turn a peacenik and attempt something as dramatic as Atal Bihari Vajpayee did by first travelling on bus to Lahore and then inviting General Musharraf for Summit levels talks at Agra?
Fears of ties turning frosty stemmed from what Mr Modi said at a recent campaign meeting in Assam. He was addressing an audience that comprised mainly Hindu Assamese and other Hindu migrants from the rest of Indians states, mainly West Bengal and Bihar. He was playing on the insecurity of his audience of being demographically overrun by Muslim (and a few Hindu) migrants from Bangladesh, most of whom arrive by illegal means. Mr Modi said: “Assam lies next to Bangladesh, and Gujarat lies near Pakistan. Today, Assam is disturbed due to Bangladeshi immigrants, but the whole of Pakistan is disturbed because of me”.
A few days before that, while speaking at a function of the Somnath Temple in Gujarat, Mr Modi referred to the issue of detention of Indian fishermen detained by Pakistan for straying into its territorial waters. He said: “I ask the central government to show decisiveness with Pakistan and give that country a befitting reply for its activities against Indian fishermen.”
On the basis of this statement, one can jump to a conclusion that if Mr Modi becomes Indian Prime Minister, relations between the two neighbours will nosedive. But before making that assumption, it would be worthwhile to survey Mr Modi’s assertions in regard to India’s other neighbours.
[quote]Modi adopted hardline postures solely for strategic purposes[/quote]
As early as September 2013, just a few days after he was officially named BJP’s electoral candidate, he had adopted a tough posture saying Pakistan needed to “stop focusing on anti-India policies and clamp down on terror”. With regard to Bangladesh the terse advice was that it should “fight poverty, illiteracy and superstitions” and not India. As far as China is concerned, the tough message that went out from Mr Modi that afternoon was that Beijing was dominating because of an ineffective central government. This aggressive stance was demonstrated again recently when Mr Modi told a campaign meeting in Arunachal Pradesh on the same day he addressed the gathering in Assam and contended that “China should shed its expansionist policy and forge bilateral ties with India for peace, progress and prosperity of both the nations.”
On the issue of relations with Sri Lanka and the extent to which India should be concerned about Colombo’s internal matter of the issue of addressing grievances of Sri Lankan Tamil population, Mr Modi said in October at a meeting in Chennai that India should have an “assertive foreign policy that would also involve the states.” His remarks were noteworthy as political parties in Tamil Nadu and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal in recent years displayed belligerence towards their international neighbours because of parochial concerns. Mr Modi decision to endorse tough stances of regional parties has considerable political consequence.
It is fairly certain that the south block will advise Mr Modi from opening too many regional fronts if he indeed becomes Prime Minister. Such advice actually may not be necessary because of his political acumen. Mr Modi would also be aware that it would be foolhardy to simultaneously engage Beijing in an escalated dispute. Insofar as Pakistan is concerned, his stance will be mainly be determined by internal factors and the nature of electoral mandate he gets from voters.
In a Parliament of 543 elected members, no single party is expected to reach within handshaking distance of a simple majority. The BJP’s best performance so far has been under Mr Vajpayee when they won 182 seats in Lok Sabha. The rest of the coalition was cobbled from regional parties. Mr Modi stands little chance of becoming Prime Minister if the BJP tally ends up lesser than that. He will become assertive within his government if the tally is more than that figure. The higher the BJP’s individual tally, the lesser would be his dependence on allies.
His Pakistan policy would also depend primarily on the nature of the mandate. If the mandate is such that Mr Modi needs to consolidate his core political constituency, one can expect calibrated aggression while dealing with Islamabad. But if the mandate is fairly overwhelming then, there may not be any political compulsion for going overboard. However, there would be considerable temptation to turn belligerent, although Mr Modi adopted hardline postures solely for strategic purposes. At least for the initial couple of years when Mr Modi will have to consolidate the mandate, he cannot be expected to walk across the Rann of Kutch with a white flag in hand. However, compulsions of realpolitik are also likely to act as a kind of a check-dam. He is still likely to ensure that the reservoir of pent up emotions remain full, yet does not spill over and literally flood the region.
The writer is a journalist and author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (Tranquebar, 2013)