India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to emerge as the largest parliamentary force after the general elections, paving the way for its controversial leader Narendra Modi to become the next prime minister. Critics fear the Hindu nationalist leader’s possible rise could worsen ties with neighboring Pakistan, but leaders and observers in Islamabad think otherwise.
In Pakistani political circles, the relatively optimistic outlook on Narendra Modi’s possible rise to power is rooted in history.
Many cite the example of former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who undertook a historic bus journey to Lahore in 1999 to promote peace with Pakistan.
That visit laid the foundation for a wide-ranging peace dialogue aimed at normalizing relations and trying to resolve territorial disputes. It led to increased transportation and trade links, and a reduction in tensions. The peace process has since suffered repeated setbacks and been stalled for more than a year.
Pakistani advisor on foreign policy and national security, Sartaj Aziz, however, admits Modi is unpredictable compared to Vajpayee because of his anti-Muslim image and anti-Pakistan rhetoric at times.
“The previous breakthrough that we had with India in the Lahore process in February 1999 it was also Mr. Vajpayee of BJP. So, I think any government that the people of India elect Pakistan would deal with them. And I think pre-election rhetoric is a different thing after election I think the peace constituency in both the countries is strong and I hope the BJP government if they come to power, whichever government come to power will respond to that,” said Aziz.
Indian peace activist Satya Paul Arora also dismissed concerns bilateral ties will worsen under a Modi-led BJP government.
“The same fear was when NDA government came into power, BJP government will come [and] it will harden our relations. But history has shown that Vajpayee proved better friend to Pakistan because when a person is in opposition he is free to speak anything but when he comes in power, in the chair of responsibility then he behaves differently,” said Arora.
Senator Mushahid Hussain was Pakistan’s information minister when Vajpayee visited the country aboard a bus in 1999. He said Pakistan has changed in the meantime and its parliamentary mainstream no longer uses India to score political points.
“The problem lies not in Islamabad but… in New Delhi. Unfortunately, in India, sometimes a lot of these issues are hostage to domestic electoral politics. In Pakistan, I want to make it very clear for the last five elections India has not been an election issue in Pakistan. I hope the time comes when Pakistan will cease to be an election issue in India,” said Hussain.
Despite a lack of progress on territorial disputes, trade ties between India and Pakistan have significantly improved in recent years. Last month saw Islamabad on the verge of granting New Delhi long-awaited trade concessions under Pakistan’s international obligations, but Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif withheld the decision at the last moment.
Advisor on foreign policy Aziz explained the reasons for delaying the decision to grant India trade concessions.
“It finalized just less than one month before the [Indian] elections. So, it was pointed out that Pakistan should not interfere in the Indian elections so by making a deal with this government if they get advantage in the election time then it will appear to be some kind of interference so that is why it was decided that now the election is only less than a month away and the new government will come by May 16 so it is better to delay this package,” explained Aziz.
The Indian election comes at a pivotal time in south Asia, as foreign troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan. Analysts in Pakistan say close cooperation between New Delhi and Islamabad is vital to prevent their rivalry from igniting a proxy war for influence in Afghanistan.