Thursday, 22 May 2014

Modi’s burdensome hat

Does one envy Narendra Modi’s position as India’s 17th prime minister? Perhaps not, since more than any other premier he has the burden of proof on his shoulders for turning India’s economy around, bringing down the temperature of communal politics in his country, and ensuring that his domestic and foreign policy doesn’t create a fire across the region.
From an economic standpoint, the state of Gujarat is considered as a poster for Modi’s performance. A number of people, including the business community in Pakistan, look atModi as the man who may be able to do economic miracles for the rest of India and even take some hard decisions for improving bilateral trade between the two countries. Considering what many in India say about the need for accountability on how Gujarat was turned around or special concessions given to the corporate sector, it is a tough challenge for the new prime minister to prove his worth. This would include creating a fine balance between the rich and greedy corporate sector and the upcoming middle class to making it work for the millions of have-nots that India has in abundance.

Issues become even more complicated with the need to strike a balance between Hindutva politics and making space for India’s minority groups. Given India’s multi-communal base, no government can afford to light a communal fire. Even if we were to imagine that Narendra Modi was innocent of the 2002 Gujarat carnage, he doesn’t have the natural advantage of a good image that the Congress party had, often unfairly. History haunts both negatively and positively. Although the post-Nehru Congress is responsible for a lot of communal mess, it managed to survive for a long time on its liberal image. The BJP under Modi does not enjoy such a persona. Despite its efforts to bring members of the Muslim elite on board, the bulk of Muslims and other minorities would be wary of a hawkish Hindu support base of the party and what it might mean for the minorities.

I recently had a chance to meet scion of an old Muslim Nawab family studying in an elite British university. With his eyes on the Congress party to provide him political space in future, his main argument was how Indian Muslims had become integrated with the idea of India. My concern was that, in fact, over years the integrated Muslim at the lower end had become less integrated. This Muslim may not want another Pakistan, since the latter does not appear to be in a shape to even protect itself, but is keener to create internal violent patronages to contest the state. I was also reminded of images of Indian Muslim visitors to Pakistan during the 1980s and the 1990s, who were quite comfortable with their image of India, than a number of Muslims that you come across today in India.
What is even sadder and almost at the scale of a tragedy is that this large community and its relations with its own government and state have become much more tightly linked with Delhi’s bilateral relations with Rawalpindi via Islamabad. Even if we argue that India’s Muslims shouldn’t be Pakistan’s concern, there is always the fear of Modi sarkar viewing these Muslims as Islamabad’s agents. The state’s military, intelligence and law-enforcement bureaucracy may also get tempted to point fingers.
Caught in the middle of such politics is an even more tragic character of Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who has lost the opportunity to develop trade ties with India. He cannot even extend the visa of two Indian journalists, who as per an older unwritten arrangement, could stay and work in Islamabad for almost three years. Some of the GHQ’s journalist friends were quick to equate the non-extension of these visas with India denying visas to some Pakistanis, totally forgetting that this situation is entirely different. These journalists should not have been punished for Islamabad or
Rawalpindi’s inefficiency in not sending Pakistani journalists to Delhi. Closing down these journalist positions in each other’s states will deprive both of understanding and talking to each other’s societies. Iron curtains have never brought peace or stability.
A critical fact worth comprehending is that both India and Pakistan are at a tricky stage of sociopolitical redefinition. While India prepares towards a more singular communal identity, Pakistan has turned into a hybrid-theocracy where various kinds of zealots have begun to define social, political and eventually foreign policy norms. A clash between the two is imminent. There are elements in Pakistan who have little problem turning the state North Korea-like as long as it can successfully challenge Modi’s dream of a new India. The intriguing part of this formula is that even such forces may piggyback on Modi’s image of a right-wing zealot. In case of a limited war or some kind of regional conflict, the responsibility would equally fall on the new Indian prime minister’s shoulders, mainly due to his reputation. Surely, the world will deal with him and even issue him visas, however, the international community may be equally curious to see if he proves them right in their discomfort about him as someone accused of involvement with violence within his own state.
There is a part of the Pakistani state keen to take the region forward and another that does not want to engage at all because its heart and mind tells it not to. This is a Pakistan that reads itself like a forever happening tragedy for which it holds the world outside responsible. This particular set of strategists is already feeling uncomfortable with Abdullah Abdullah in the north and Modi in the east. Some of the state’s precious ‘strategic assets’ have started with their propaganda against both.
Any increase in tension and violence will prove distracting to the new Indian leadership if it does not have its calculations right on how to deal with such an eventuality. Not that the new Indian prime minister would like the advise but he has far less space than his predecessor to prove that he is the right man for the right job.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2014.
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