Two choices for Modi’s India

By : Syed Aijaz Zaka
For someone who has seldom missed an opportunity to tear into Pakistan and Bangladesh, accusing the Congress government of being ‘soft on the terrorists,’ (“They are killing Bharat Mata’s sons on the border and you are treating them to chicken biryani,” he once tweeted) Narendra Modi has lost little time in reaching out to the neighbors.

Whether Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh make it to the grand inauguration of India’s new leader or not, the invitation to the two neighbors besides other SAARC member nations is a stroke of diplomatic genius. And diplomacy at the end of the day is a game of perceptions as much as it is of cold realities and hard national interests. This round clearly went to New Delhi even before the BJP government took charge of the South Block.

But given his regulation rhetoric as Gujarat chief minister, often directly addressing ‘Miyan Musharraf’ across the border delighting his domestic audience, if anyone thought Modi would come out with his guns blazing as far as ‘dealing with’ Pakistan is concerned, they may be in for some disappointment.

As far as foreign policy, especially engaging Pakistan, is concerned, a tough talking BJP government in Delhi has actually been far more reasonable and proactive, initiating bold measures to bolster relations. Indeed, under Vajpayee, the South Asian twins saw one of the coziest periods in their relations.

Sharif still gets all mushy and wistful talking about that historic bus trip from Amritsar to Lahore. It’s another matter that that particular burst of Indo-Pak bonhomie ended on the peaks of Kargil. To give credit where due, Vajpayee carried on the journey with Sharif’s cockier and more adventurous successor in khakis. Apparently, Musharraf and Vajpayee came tantalizingly close to resolving the ‘K’ conundrum during their encounter in the city of love, Agra.

But that was in the past. The future of South Asian relations may not be as promising under Modi. But it need not be as gloomy as is being feared by many. Lashing out at a neighbor as a state chief minister to the glee of groundlings is one thing and leading the nation of a billion people is quite another.

Mercifully, India’s new leader seems to know the critical difference. Indeed, this, coupled with his already shining image abroad, is what might have prompted the outreach to neighbors. After all, Modi still remains a persona non grata in US for what happened in Gujarat 2002.
For all the power of lobbies, PR multinationals and friends in high places, they couldn’t get the visa ban lifted although the White House doors will naturally and automatically open for Prime Minister Modi. It seems for all its hypocrisy and highhandedness that the reigning superpower habitually displays, some semblance of respect for rights and rule of law still exists in the land of the free.

However, it is not Modi’s engagement with Uncle Sam or cousins across the border that is likely to keep Indians awake at night. It is his domestic business or the not-so-hidden agenda of his ideological clan that really needs to be watched out for.

With its unprecedented numbers and sheer, brute majority in Parliament — accomplished with just 31 percent of the vote share thanks to the division of opposition votes, religious polarization and hubris and incompetence of the Congress — for the first time the BJP is in a position to run India as it pleases.

The party could very well bring out the ideological baggage whose glimpse we saw in Gujarat in 2002. Not for nothing the state has been showcased as Hindutva’s laboratory all these years.

More important, on the basis of its own strength and with the support of NDA allies, the BJP could even amend and change the constitution to reflect its own saffron-tinted worldview.

The chief strength and defining character of Indian democracy has been the secular and liberal character and spirit of its constitution. Put together by some of the finest minds and libertarian spirits of their time, it has stood the test of time and has been the guiding light in times of crises. It has protected political and religious freedom to a great extent and ensured smooth functioning of political and democratic institutions including judiciary in the country. It is the only hope of voiceless, marginalized and dispossessed sections in an incredibly complex society.

In its earlier avatar, the BJP government did not touch the constitution largely because it was dependent on its allies for its daily survival. Besides, Vajpayee, for all the talk of being a ‘mukhauta’ (mask), had enough sense to know that India couldn’t afford such dangerous adventures.

It is a different proposition altogether with Modi. He doesn’t merely have enough numerical strength to run roughshod — the Congress has been reduced to double digits so much so it doesn’t even qualify for the status of opposition in Parliament — he spent all his life in the ideological trenches of hardline Hindutva. He left home at 18, leaving behind a young bride, to become a full-time pracharak (propagandist) of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent. He was parachuted into Ahmedabad as Gujarat chief minister in 2001 by the BJP on the orders of RSS.

It’s hardly a secret that the RSS believes in one nation and one religion under one god. Others are welcome to live in the Hindutva paradise as long as they embrace the ‘Hindu way of life’ and as second class citizens.

Given this ideological baggage, what would Prime Minister Modi do?

Would he like the true and loyal soldier of Hindutva that he is carries out its long cherished mission, dismantling the diverse and secular fabric and character of this great nation to paint it in one, overpowering saffron hue?

Or would he rather respect the sanctity of the awesome, historic mandate gifted to him in good faith with such enthusiasm by a trusting nation. This is something that was denied to even Vajpayee, the BJP’s tallest leader. No government since 1984 has enjoyed such decisive mandate.

Sick and tired of long years of corruption and the curious combination of meekness of Manmohan Singh and fecklessness of Rahul Gandhi, a predominantly young and ambitious electorate has decisively voted for change. This is a vote against the past and for the future.
Now it is up to India’s new leader whether he goes with the nation’s choice and demands of his conscience to ensure himself a distinct place in history or remains a prisoner of his past and a divisive dogma.

Modi stands at a fork in the road and on the cusp of a historic opportunity that could make or unmake both him and India. He could jump on this grand opportunity to push ahead with the mission that his extended clan has long worked on and in the process destroy this rich, mosaic of a nation.

Or he could make use of this historic opportunity that few leaders in history have had to usher in a new dawn of hope, peace and justice for everyone, making amends and perhaps atone for his past. The nation would want him to reach out and heal the wounds that have long been festering.

If he truly believes in respecting democracy and people’s mandate, as he claimed after reverentially kissing the footsteps of Parliament this week, this is what he should and would do. You cannot build a sound and promising future over the gaping grave of a grievous past.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.
Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

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