As is to be expected, the upcoming Indian elections are being closely monitored in Pakistan. People across the border have many questions. Among them: will the tension between the two countries in the aftermath of Pulwama attacks in February and the Balakot intrusion subside after the elections or aggravate the trouble?
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that Narendra Modi might engage in another “activity” similar to the one in Balakot before the Indian elections to boost his popularity at the ballot box. Other Pakistani officials have stated that tension with India has not completely abated and is likely to remain tense till the elections. There is wide spread belief in Pakistan that Balakot was a political stunt carried out for electoral compulsions.
Needless to say there aren’t many in Pakistan who are rooting for the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is widely believed that the party under Modi is not just anti-Pakistan but also anti-Muslim, given the Gujarat riots of 2002 and several incidents of violence against members of India’s Muslim community in the past few years.
For many, the emergence of chauvinistic Hindu nationalism under the BJP justifies the creation of Pakistan. It reinforces the belief that Hindus are fundamentally against Muslims and that Pakistan’s founder Jinnah was correct in his political prophecy that the two religious groups should form different nations. Thus, despite the recent case of two teenage Hindu girls in Pakistan being forcibly converted to Islam, it is acts of violence against Muslims in India and the situation in Kashmir that continues to be widely reported, not just on Pakistan’s national media outlets but also on social media.
Two Nation theory
Of course, there are those in Pakistan who have internalised the state’s narrative of the Two-Nation Theory and found in Modi’s India a reaffirmation of their belief in this idea. But there are others, perhaps a minority, who never completely bought this vision. India, for many liberals and secularists in Pakistan, remained an ideal that Pakistan should aspire to be – democratic, secular, inclusivist, and tolerant towards its religious minorities. Modi’s victory in 2014 shattered this image. Many began seeing his rise as India beginning to tread the path of Pakistan.
For this group, Modi’s victory on May 16, 2014, was comparable to July 4, 1977, when the Islamist military dictator Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and declared Martial Law in Pakistan. What followed were years of Islamisation of state institutions, laws, educations, media, whose widespread impact, according to many, is still felt by the Pakistani society.
For many, the Talibanisation of Pakistani society post-9/11 and a rise of Islamic nationalism that began challenging the Pakistani state was a direct impact of the Islamisation of state institutions under Zia-ul-Haq. In recent times, with the growing influence of Hindu nationalists on Indian institutions, Modi has come to be seen as India’s Zia-ul-Haq. Indian Opposition leaders such as Shashi Tharoor have talked about how India, under Modi, has the potential to become Hindu Pakistan. There were many in Pakistan who did not disagree.
While there were many in Pakistan who were critical of Modi even before the BJP claimed to have carried out surgical strikes across the border in 2016, there was also a narrative that cast him in a light that Modi wouldn’t mind. Much like Putin of Russia, Erodgan of Turkey and Trump of US, Modi has projected himself in the mould of a Strong Man, a highly masculine leader.
Nawaz Sharif, who was ruling Pakistan at the time, did not have an image of this sort in the popular imagination. Modi almost came to be seen with envy in Pakistan, a leader who was imagined to be a Strong Man and would in the long term benefit India. Many in Pakistan argued that even though Modi was anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan, he was beneficial for India. One heard a similar narrative about Trump in Pakistan, even when he was high on rhetoric against migrants and sometimes even Muslims. For a country obsessively in search of a messiah, where many fake messiahs in the past had arrived, many Pakistanis couldn’t help buying the narrative Modi was selling.
There were arguments about how his demonetisation policy needed to be replicated in Pakistan to remove black money from the country. In fact, just after the 2018 elections that brought Imran Khan to power, imagined by many to be our messiah, there was fake news circulating on the social media that the new government had implemented its own demonetisation policy. There was widespread panic before officials from the government had to clarify there was no such policy. It seemed many in Pakistan had bought BJP’s propaganda of the success of demonetisation.
As Modi swept into power in 2014 and with Nawaz Sharif in power at that time, there were a few who felt as if the stars were conspiring again for a replay of India-Pakistan rapprochement similar to the Lahore Declaration of 1999. When that deal was reached a decade ago, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and BJP governments were in power, both of them right-wing political parties. It was being felt that with the BJP in power, they would tone down their extreme stance against Pakistan. Thus for many Modi’s rise in 2014 came as a good omen for India-Pakistan relation.
The situation seems to have taken a 180-degree turn since then. India-Pakistan relations are at a historical low and the situation does not seem like it will change at least till the elections. It seems the Pakistani government believes the situation could improve after elections but one can never be certain. If Modi wins the elections again, how will he be interpreted in Pakistan this time? Will he reinforce our biases against India and Hindus? Will he still be seen through the lens of a Strong Man leader, whom we should emulate in our own way, or would he continue to be seen as India’s Zia-ul-Haq who is bent upon making the two countries mirror opposites of each other?
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.