Two related events will come to dominate Indian politics in the coming general election year, and both lead to the same questions about India’s relationship with her northern neighbour and sister state, Pakistan.
On February 27th 2002, a train filled with Hindu pilgrims was burnt at Godhra in the state of Gujarat, killing 58 and sparking inter-communal violence between Muslims and Hindus across the state. The pilgrims were returning from the holy city of Ayodhya, seat of the god Ram during his golden age of Hinduism in the mythical past; where Babur, the first Great Mughal, built a giant mosque atop the holy city as symbol of the Mughal conquest of India. This mosque was torn apart by an angry Hindu mob in 1992, a history neatly describing an arc in Hindu-Muslim relations in India, and, subsequently a negative barometer of Indo-Pakistan relations and the rise and impetus of the right-centrist Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujurat during the 2002 violence, was selected in mid-September as the Prime Ministerial candidate for the 2014 Indian general election, running for the opposition BJP, a part of the National Democratic Alliance coalition (NDA). The party, running Mr. Modi in a presidential style against the incumbent Congress party, looks to make significant gains in the general election, even if their goal of an outright majority for themselves is far fetched in the regionally fractured Indian political landscape.
Mr. Modi has come under scrutiny for his alleged role in the Gujarat violence. The underlying tensions this conflict represents and the effect of his potential BJP premiership on India’s relations with its Muslim neighbour to the north will become the central issues of Mr. Modi’s, and the BJP’s foreign policy in the coming election.
The BJP, as a Hindu nationalist party, and the NDA, a coalition containing Hindu-nationalist elements, such as the ultra-right-wing Shiv Sena (Army of Shivaji) Party, have always had a tetchy relationship to India’s Muslims. The fact that Mr. Modi has resolutely refused to apologise for the insufficient role some see his government may have played in containing the violence, and that some, despite a Supreme Court ruling, still see him as directly culpable, has not endeared him to either Muslims in India or Pakistan, or the more progressive, cosmopolitan elements of Indian society, a younger dynamic he wishes to capture. Mr. Modi is still denied an entry visa to the United States for his alleged role in the violence, evidencing just how powerful this event may prove to be on the coming foreign policy landscape of India.
The history of the previous NDA government’s antagonism with Pakistan, involving the Operation Shakti Pokhran-II tests that confirmed India’s fusion weapon status, Pakistan’s Chagai-1, 2 test response, and the inevitable geopolitical escalation that this entailed, is an important example. How much this can be linked, given the highly fraught but largely uneventful brinkmanship over the previous decades by successive Congress administrations, to the Hindu-nationalist change in ruling ideology, is a matter of some debate. The potential for further escalation from previous years is high; especially if India’s economic miracle continues to lose its sheen over the coming years, and the government looks for a foreign policy to distract the burgeoning middle class. The BJP’s current policy has no lustre itself, either.
The tired line of the BJP is that the Congress-led government has not done enough to control or avenge the recent Indian Army deaths along the Kashmiri Line of Control, where militant and Pakistani army activity are virtually, indistinguishable from one another. Further they argue that Congress has exacerbated the interminable Kashmiri conflict, creating a source of militancy, and the inspiration behind the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. However, under the previous NDA government, military policy in the Vale led directly to the Kargil War, the only conventional conflict between two nuclear-armed states; so the BJPs track record in this region is less than distinguished.
However, neither Mr. Modi, nor the BJP, nor anyone within the NDA has arrived at any convincing or constructive-sounding policy, content to merely use foreign policy as an excuse to drag the Congress’, and particularly the current PM Dr. Manmohan Singh’s, names through the mud. Indicative of this lack of creativity in the foreign arena is Mr. Modi’s flashy website, launched the day of his anointing as Prime Ministerial candidate, which has screeds on development and Mr. Modi the ‘Practical Dreamer’, but a search for keywords ‘foreign+policy’ produces precisely zero results. Evidentially, the BJP wish to fight the election on domestic issues, where Congress have proved sluggish and unresponsive to the younger audience the BJP wants to capture; but foreign policy, and especially cultural policy, will become a major issue, given the inter-communal events of Gujarat in 2002, the BJP’s avowed Hindu nationalist stance, and the tortured atomic foreign history of the BJP’s relations.
There still exists potential for improvement in Indo-Pakistan relations under the would-be BJP government, in a realpolitik continuation of the current détente, or the containment policies of the Connect Central Asia policy, (in which India hopes to counter China’s potential hegemony in Central Asia by bypassing Pakistan as a trade route to the region), and democratic and developmental solutions in Kashmir to quell the fighting. Yet given the foreign relations history of the NDA, the Hindu-nationalistic ideology of both the party, and the evidently unpractised nature of the BJP foreign policy cadre, a heavy handed approach in certain areas—Kashmir policy and Pakistan relations especially— can be expected. To convince India of its readiness to rule in the foreign policy sphere, the BJP needs to delineate a concrete policy on both relations with Pakistan, and, to mollify Muslims in Kashmir, Mr. Modi must at least acknowledge and address the Gujarat violence’s effect on both inter-communal and inter-national relations.