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INDIA-PAKISTAN: Time to kick-start behind-the-scene parleys to make way for the resumption of a comprehensive dialogue.

March 06, 2017 08:35 PM
Mr Imtiaz Alam, noted columnist of Pakistan

WRITER: Imtiaz Alam

India is up for a grand polarisation on communal and secular lines as all eyes are now focused mainly on the elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Bihar might not be repeated in UP; in Bihar all the secular and caste-based parties had succeeded in keeping the Bharatiya Janata Party in check.

UP may fall in the lap of communal nationalists, which will help consolidate the Hindutva Parivar’s hold in the heart of the cow belt while paving the way for the BJP’s majority in the upper house of parliament and brightening the chances of re-election of Prime Minister Modi in the 2019 general elections.

It was very embarrassing and disheartening being reminded by a top expert in New Delhi that India launched 100 satellites in space on the day when around 100 devotees were killed by terrorists at the sacred shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan Sharif. When will our fortunes change for the better?

During a brief visit to Punjab, Delhi and UP, I found a number of rather intriguing trends across ideological and political divides. In Punjab, the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal and its junior partner BJP is expected to be routed at the hands of the Aam Adami Party (AAP) or Congress – mainly on anti-incumbency and anti-corruption grounds. In Utrakand, Manipur and Goa, the BJP clearly has the upper hand. The most pivotal contest in the largest state of India, UP – which is bigger than Pakistan – is being rightly tipped as a semi-final for Modi and the final for the CM Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi combination (the Samajawadi Party and the Congress alliance).

Prime Minister Modi has placed all his bets on the UP elections. UP has almost one-fifth of Lok Sabha seats; the BJP had won 71 out of 80 seats in the 2014 elections, ensuring Modi’s absolute majority. Losing the UP state elections would be seen as a mid-term no-trust vote against his policies, demonetisation in particular. Targeting the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) ‘goonda raj and bharashta char’ (vandalism and corruption), the BJP’s electoral plank in UP is a combination of sharply divisive communalism and development. The SP-Congress alliance and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), representing Dalits and Muslims, is being dubbed as enemy agents or Kasab (the terrorist arrested during the Mumbai carnage).

The reason behind the weakness of anti-communal forces in UP is the sharp divisions among low castes (Dalits), Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and Muslims – having 40 million votes out of 220 million in UP. These groups are divided between, SP-Congress and BSP. The incumbent chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, tried to reinvent his party’s image via a coup against his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav. This, though, has worked both in his favour and against him. Akhilesh’s dilemma is similar to Bilawal Bhutto’s.

In contrast, Mayawati has shown relatively greater potential to carry her mass support but not enough to emerge as the single largest party. If the BJP does not win an absolute majority, then it would have no option but to sit either in opposition, despite emerging possibly as the single largest party, or provide support to the BSP from outside. Even if the BJP emerges as the single largest party, it will be a substantial improvement over its tally in the last state elections but a big setback over its electoral performance in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 when it won almost three-fourths of the provincial segments of Lok Sabha constituencies.

To keep its national tempo, as witnessed during local government elections in Maharashtra where it won eight out of ten district councils/corporations, the BJP needs to win the UP single-handedly. If that happens, which is quite probable, the communal Hindu nationalism will prevail over the secular forces across the country and caste-based politics will suffer a blow in northern India. By substituting patriotism with Hinduism and castigating Muslims, Hindu nationalists are now on the offensive and displaying fascist tendencies against dissent on campuses and against a very vibrant secular civil society.

With the corporate sector, which has now consolidated its monopoly over the media, on his side and a 400-million strong middle class broadly keeping hopes in him, Modi has emerged as the most powerful Indian prime minister after Indira Gandhi. He has become almost autonomous of the RSS and BJP, as well as the Delhi-based establishment that he has effectively sidelined. A possible victory in UP will make him a totalitarian ruler, forcing all opponents to unite to counter his absolute rule. In some ways, Modi can be compared with President Trump and President Erdogan.

But what should not be forgotten is that Indian democracy is vibrant enough to throw up a broad-based secular democratic alternative – which doesn’t exist at the moment. A victory of secular forces in UP could help reverse the tidal waves of communalism, but that seems unlikely. A hung state won’t be bad either for the BJP. The secular and enlightened elements are understandably quite perturbed and trying to cling to regional parties to thwart the onslaught of Hindutva. But communalists are gaining grounds against almost all regional incumbents, except for the AAP which is likely to throw a vibrant challenge to Modi in his home state of Gujarat in the coming state elections. The AAP seems to be closer to Imran Khan’s PTI, with a similar stance against tested political parties and corruption.

Whether Modi’s BJP becomes the single largest party or wins an absolute majority in UP, it seems that he is likely to respond to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s peace overtures. Despite perpetual scepticism and its aggressive stance, New Delhi is cautiously optimistic about some of the steps being taken by Islamabad and Rawalpindi against terrorism. The launch of Operation Raddul Fasaad by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and COAS General Bajwa is being watched quite minutely.

It is most probable that fresh initiatives will be taken after the UP elections and Modi may have to put his anti-Pakistan tirade on hold for a while. He may be willing to go for yet another extra mile after his possible victory in UP. If Modi could make a surprise visit to Lahore, why can’t our prime minister surprise his counterpart in India?

We have a new foreign secretary and will have a new high commissioner soon in New Delhi. We also have a very thoughtful national security adviser. These people can all interact with their counterparts in India. And this has to be done between the two PM’s offices. For this to happen, Pakistan’s PM Office has to have the backing of the GHQ, without whose support Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cannot move forward in the pursuit of his very sensible approach towards our regional neighbours. While things have indeed become much more complicated, Pakistan is now much better placed and needs even more to engage with its bigger neighbour.

Let the two prime ministers ask their respective national security advisers to kick-start behind-the-scene parleys to make way for the resumption of a comprehensive dialogue. It was very embarrassing and disheartening being reminded by a top expert in New Delhi that India launched 100 satellites in space on the day when around 100 devotees were killed by terrorists at the sacred shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan Sharif. When will our fortunes change for the better? 

*The writer is a senior journalist. Email: imtiaz.safma@gmail.com

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

 

 

 

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