GO TO...!

How realistic is Pakistan’s perspective on the Indian election?

Same rhetoric.
Same rhetoric.
Image: REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta
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“Go to Pakistan!” is perhaps the most pungent insult in Narendra Modi’s India, something that is hurled not only at Indian Muslims, but anyone who seems unfriendly to his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and ideological mothership, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) Hindu populism.

In fact, Pakistan is so central to the Indian prime minister’s campaign for a second term that we might as well pause for a second and ask how that country sees the 2019 Indian general elections.

The short version is that both prime minister Imran Khan and the Pakistan Army imagine that India’s hard line towards them is Modi’s election stunt.

Regardless of the outcome, they expect the next government in India to be more open to the dialogue that the Pakistani establishment has sought with steadily increasing seriousness. In doing so, they may be dangerously underestimating the level of cross-party consensus in India to hang tough.

Popular opinion and the media

It’s common for discussions on India and Pakistan to dwell on the asymmetry in population, in diversity, in economic development, and global standing.

There is another asymmetry that is perhaps at least as important, and that is in basic familiarity with each other. Enormous numbers of Pakistanis consume a steady stream of Indian television, film, music, and online media, while most Indians see and read next to nothing from their neighbour.

Given the level of shared linguistic and cultural heritage, this has reinstated limits on just how “other” India can be even to those who sincerely believe it is out to destroy or diminish Pakistan. There is a fascination with the drama of Indian elections driven not just by its vast scale, but the lack of controversy over results.

In 2014, Modi’s sweep produced far less of a shock to most Pakistanis than among Indian liberals. Instead there was widespread genuine respect for the upward mobility that allowed a supposed chaiwala (tea seller) to make it to the top. Given the seminal improvement in relations that took place under former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, there was no particular fear of dealing with a Hindutva government.

In contrast in 2019, Pakistan’s prominent but negative place in the election campaign, the growth in Islamophobia, and the domination of the campaign’s talking points across the heavily pro-Modi Indian media has taken much of the sheen off.

As with many in India, there’s a wait-and-watch attitude when it comes to deciding what this rhetoric means for the region and its peoples. Pakistani public opinion although still robust in its desire to match any and all Indian military action, and to signal some kind of support for Kashmiri Muslims (more so than other Indian Muslims), is opposed to war and prolonged conflict with India.

There is deep consensus on improving relations and increasing economic ties, although fatally, most Pakistanis also trust the army to oversee any such peace process.

The civil and military view

Pakistan Army’s greatest source of strength has been its sophistication in simultaneously courting and manipulating domestic public opinion.

The public’s long-standing preference for improvement in the economy and domestic security through improved ties with India was finally crystallised as the “Bajwa Doctrine,” laid out in a speech delivered by the current chief of army staff, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, in October 2017.

Every Pakistani leader eventually reaches out to India; but the army’s support is the critical factor in whether or not those efforts can go anywhere. Prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s attempts to lead foreign policy based on the Bajwa Doctrine helped get him thrown out of office as he was so intensely distrusted by the military. His successor, Imran Khan, has enjoyed strong support, and his efforts at outreach to India have complemented those of the army.

But New Delhi had no interest in talking and reducing the pressure on Pakistan. Imran and the military’s read of the Indian government’s hard line was straightforwardly political.

During a press conference in Islamabad on Nov. 29, 2018, he declared “…elections are scheduled in India. There are imperatives for elections. Antagonism to Pakistan is often a vote-catcher…We are waiting for elections in April and then we will take it forward.”  

Getting India wrong

While it’s true that the BJP government has fused its domestic political strategy and national security policy to a level rarely seen in the Indian republic’s history, the Pakistani establishment’s view may be a fundamental misreading of their Indian counterparts.

Much of India’s Pakistan policy follows what has come to be known as the “Doval Doctrine,” overseen by national security advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval.

Although loyal to prime minister Modi, his approach draws more from what the security studies scholar Avinash Paliwal describes as the “partisan-conciliator” divide within the “deep state” than from Hindutva.

Partisans are those who by temperament believe peace with the enemy is impossible, and that conflict cannot be avoided by a responsible and realistic leadership. Conciliators on the other hand believe the exact opposite and seek mutual understanding and de-escalation when and where possible. Historically both the BJP and Congress have had their fill of both types at the top.

Paliwal argues it is changes in the regional and global politics that tilt the policy playing field back and forth between conciliators and partisans.

Doval is an arch-partisan who believes pressure on Pakistan must be steadily ratcheted up without any relief until Pakistan is actually willing to discard its tools of proxy warfare within India. Although a political appointee parachuted into the NSA’s role, he is a long-serving securocrat whose views are shared by many in the establishment.

It’s certainly true that America’s diminishing patience with Pakistan emboldens Indian “partisans” in the government. Perhaps most crucially of all, his policy approach is endorsed by an Indian public (including many “liberals”) whose demands for effective governance include a much lower threshold of tolerance for either insecurity from terrorism in urban areas, or the embarrassment of a weak and ineffective looking state.  

The wheels will turn again

One of the greatest south Asian tragedies in the 70-plus years of independence since partition is that India and Pakistan’s cycles of conciliation have rarely ever synced up with each other.

Pakistan’s period of jingoistic nationalism coincided with periods of Indian preference for focus on growth and development, and now it would seem we live in a mirror image moment.

But the wheel will turn again as the Indian electorate, its politicians, and mandarins realise there is no free lunch; economic growth and deep tension between neighbours do not go hand in hand. One can only hope that Pakistan’s top brass and public don’t forget that bloody lesson by then.  

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.