This article was published in Dawn on April 11, 2019 and is available at the following link
Starting this week, India will hold its general elections in seven phases until May 19th. It is safe to assume that the winner will be one of two major parties in the arena: the current ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC). At stake is Delhi’s central government and prime ministership for the next five years.
It is a heightened competition between a relatively liberal, staunchly secular and left-leaning INC and a conservative, right-wing, Hindu nationalist BJP. The unfolding political drama has not only aroused passions within India but people around the world are waiting anxiously for the results, especially in neighboring Pakistan.
Against the backdrop of recent hostilities between Pakistan and India following the Pulwama suicide bombing in February this year, the Indian election discourse has assumed a greater-than-normal anti-Pakistan dimension. In turn, this has caused even relatively apolitical Pakistanis to take great interest in the Indian election.
In this context, the reading of the election manifestos of the BJP and INC is a fascinating exercise to truly understand the consequences of this election for Pakistan, and for Muslim minorities in India with whom Pakistanis generally relate. How do these parties visualize their policy toward Pakistan? What about subjects like the Kashmir dispute, terrorism, SAARC? How do these parties plan to address contentious issues impacting the 172 million Muslims of India?
Against the backdrop of recent hostilities between Pakistan and India following the Pulwama suicide bombing in February this year, the Indian election discourse has assumed a greater-than-normal anti-Pakistan dimension.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
After reading the BJP election manifesto, one gets the bizarre impression that Pakistan simply does not exist. At least not for the BJP. There are several oblique references to Pakistan but the name of the country is not mentioned at all.
For example, in the context of national security, the BJP manifesto states, ‘in order to equip the armed forces with modern equipment, we will continue to take focused steps to strengthen the strike capability of the Armed Forces.’
The ‘strike capability’ could be interpreted by Pakistanis as a veiled intention to undertake a pre-emptive attack on Pakistan or its administered part of Jammu and Kashmir. The BJP manifesto further states:
‘Our security doctrine will be guided by the national security interest only. This is exemplified by the surgical strikes and the air strikes carried out recently. We will firmly continue our policy of ‘zero tolerance’ against terrorism and extremism and will continue to follow our policy of giving a free hand to our security forces in combating terrorism.’
In view of the nuclear capability of both India and Pakistan, giving a free hand to security forces carries quite frightening connotations.
The INC manifesto takes a less belligerent but equally accusatory line under its chapter on foreign policy. It states:
‘Congress will take determined steps to persuade other countries to compel Pakistan to verifiably end its support to the terrorist groups that it shelters.’
It further states: ‘Congress promises to establish effective mechanisms with neighboring countries, especially Sri Lanka and Pakistan to resolve the problems faced by fishermen to eliminate conflict, coercive action and loss of lives.’
In contrast, while discussing plans to ease trade and travel with neighboring countries by way of constructing 14 more integrated check-posts by 2024, the BJP manifesto mentions Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan but not Pakistan.
Regarding Kashmir, the BJP seems to have further hardened its policy. It reiterates the resolve it had expressed in its 2014 election manifesto to abrogate Article 370 of Indian Constitution which guarantees certain safeguards and autonomy to Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. It also promises the abrogation of Article 35-A which empowers native citizens.