In the coming weeks, Indian voters have a fundamental choice to make between two decidedly distinct narratives—one carried by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and another by the opposition Indian National Congress (INC). Election campaigns run by the two major political parties are targeting an estimated 900 million Indian voters with two very different views on the future India deserves.
Narendra Modi’s BJP is leading a campaign that takes on a thorough “Nation First” view based on increasing security and building India’s clout—an approach signified by the party’s election manifest which opens with the note: “to achieve India’s long-term goals, India must first secure the country against internal and external aggression.” In the aftermath of the recent Pulwama attack, in all likelihood it seems the BJP has leaned further into advancing its anti-Pakistan narrative. INC on the other hand, led by Rahul Gandhi is promoting ideas of economic development, welfare, social justice and equality.
As India begins the first phase of its general elections, Pakistan has also weighed in on the evolving dynamics.
Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly said, “If the next Indian government were led by the opposition Congress party, it might be too scared to seek a settlement with Pakistan over Indian-occupied Kashmir, fearing a backlash from the right”. “Perhaps if the BJP — a right-wing party — wins, some kind of settlement in Kashmir could be reached,” Khan told a small group of foreign journalists in a recent interview.
Khan’s statement has been interpreted differently in different political circles.
Some analysts have perhaps rightfully argued Khan’s statement should not be taken at surface value alone.
Once Khan’s statement made the news, Congress spokesperson Randeep Sing Surjewala Tweeted,“Pakistan has officially allied with Modi! A vote for Modi is a vote for Pakistan. Modi-ji, first Nawaz Sharif, now Imran Khan is your friend. The secret is out.”
Given that the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has traditionally taken a hard stance against the right-wing BJP for being “anti-Pakistan”, and given that the BJP has often times accused Congress of making promises that favor Pakistan, it is argued that Khan may in fact now be showing support for the BJP to boost the opposition’s position.
Moreover, as far as Pakistan’s interest in resolving the Kashmir issue is concerned it is also important to note that in all likelihood resolving the dispute will have a huge impact on the defense budgets of both Pakistan and India, and any dramatic reduction in defense budgets will not be celebrated by either of the two countries’ armies.
While there is reason to doubt Khan’s intentions there is also some reason to believe he may actually have been sincere in his statement. It is likely that the BJP may not feel as threatened by a major political backlash vis-à-vis the Kashmir issue as perhaps the opposition would.
For Pakistan, a re-elected BJP means the continuance of the persecution of Kashmiris and violence against Muslims by the Indian side. In this way, BJP’s re-election could divert attention from Islamabad being held accountable for human rights abuses at home. In December last year Minister of Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari criticized the US decision to add Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedoms, deeming it a “brazen political tactic to pressure Pakistan to mitigate US failures in Afghanistan.” The minister subsequently pointed out incidents of growing religious intolerance in India, questioning why India is not held to the same standard.
“In our own neighborhood we have India where Muslims are being targeted and where the BJP is supporting violence against Muslims ostensibly over ‘beef’,” she said. “The timing of the US move smacks of pure political blackmailing because it comes in the wake of Pakistan opening the Kartarpur corridor to ease access for the Sikhs of India to their religious places as well as assisting Hindu groups to enter Pakistan for religious purposes when India has sought to prevent Muslims from Pakistan visiting Ajmer for religious purposes.” “The deliberate ignoring of India’s shrinking space for its religious minorities by the US while it targets Pakistan is absurd and unacceptable,” she added.
Given that the Indian general elections have commenced their first phase and Modi is seeking a win based on the promise of teaching Pakistan a “lesson”, the Pakistani establishment’s vote of confidence for the BJP marks for an interesting time in the India-Pakistan relationship. With respect to expectations of BJP’s role in resolving the Kashmir issue, it must still be considered that while the BJP may not fear significant political backlash, the idea of a Hindu state still enjoys much support from party hardliners and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) alike.