There are three words voters the world over love now, and three they detest. The things they like are change, disruption, even political iconoclasm. The three they abhor: Status quo, establishments, political correctness. Donald Trump is only the latest personification of this. This is precisely what brought Narendra Modi to power and keeps his popularity going.
In fact, it was Modi’s approach to politics that targeted “Lutyens” and all old establishmentarian elites, their thought processes, networks and “fake” politeness much before Trump made impact with his assault on the Washington Beltway. This is what even Arvind Kejriwal had targeted in his heyday with the war cry of “sab mile huye hain“, meaning that all elites, even while pretending to be rivals, are complicit in sharing power.
If you dismiss the entrenched establishments as effete, corrupt and fake, it should follow that you should also reject their central ideas. Particularly when these are ideas shared across party-lines because that represents classic elite complicity. Among the many things Trump promised, for example, was to radically change America’s view of Europe. Until then, there was agreement among Republicans and Democrats on Europe as a central pillar of an ideal American construction of the world. It had to be protected at all costs. That’s what justified the enormous American commitment to NATO. Now, Trump is asking Europe to pay its share of NATO’s costs for its defence.
Until now, an American president demanding protection money from its European allies would have only been a rogue, or a deep undercover Russian spy somehow elected to that office in a Tom Clancy yarn. Now it is a reality. Trump has ignored all that the respected Washington think-tanks, talking heads, establishment Republicans say.
We have seen the change in India as well. Modi has dumped the old MEA caution on the outreach to America. He has downgraded the Non-Aligned Movement. He has done much else to defy the old Lutyens’ “mafia”. He has, in fact, done so not just by demolishing the old one, but actively building a new one in his own, and his ideology’s image. Which is fine. That’s why we can seek change in another important area.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations then, had said that the US was concerned about continued India-Pakistan hostility and could not simply wait until something went really bad. And then she used that most dreaded ‘M’ word, offering to mediate between them. As you’d expect, there was outrage in the Indian commentariat and government. The same old lines were repeated: All India-Pakistan issues are to be resolved bilaterally, and no “third party” has a business to intervene.
The key words here are “as you’d expect”. If you were a Modi voter, or more specifically, one among his fast-growing fan club in the Lutyens’ commentariat, wouldn’t you have expected something other than “what you’d expect”? Why repeat a line on India’s most vital foreign policy and strategic question that’s been spoken by every leader, diplomat and policy wonk since the Simla Agreement? Shouldn’t you be disappointed that the Lutyens’ commentariat and the Modi government are agreeing on the old, Holy National Consensus on this most important issue? Didn’t you vote to disturb the status quo?
It’s time we debated if the status India enjoys now does not justify some fundamental shifts in approach to Pakistan and Kashmir as well. Is our traditional insistence on pure bilateralism with Pakistan not outdated now? Was it rooted in a sense of national confidence, or insecurity? Why did India so fear the idea of a “third party”? Was it just because of the legacy of the unfulfilled UN Security Council “plebiscite” resolutions of 1948? Should India continue to presume that if any big powers were to get involved as mediators or enablers, as the Soviets did in Tashkent in 1966, these will more likely exert pressures for a conclusion detrimental to India?
At the peak of his power, Modi can afford to review this notion. Times change, so do issues and so, most importantly, does the negotiating power of nations.
The Simla Agreement’s central proposition was that it redefined Kashmir as a purely bilateral issue, making the Security Council resolutions irrelevant. But Simla was a very long time ago. If you look from 1989 onwards, when fresh — and continuing — troubles in Kashmir started, the India-Pakistan equation has changed radically. Then, Pakistan was still a considerably richer economy than India’s (in per capita incomes). Now that has reversed radically, and the gap is further changing in India’s favour at almost 5 percentage points per year, with the combined impact of higher economic growth rates and a population growing at half the pace of Pakistan’s. For 15 years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan was a “stalwart” ally of the Western powers. Pakistan got a strategic reprieve with 9/11. Now that cycle has fully run out.
India has risen to the status of an intermediate power globally, an economic giant whose military is becoming stronger. Political stability is at its peak since Indira Gandhi’s heyday, and this is acknowledged by friends and adversaries. This should give India the confidence to toss insecurities and craft a new, post-2014 approach to Kashmir and Pakistan.
It’s politically incorrect to say that two sovereign nations aren’t equals, but isn’t that how we wanted to be? Today, India and Pakistan are not equal on any scale, not even in cricket, hockey and Sufi music. For bilateralism to work, there has to be equality between negotiating parties. This doesn’t exist anymore and there is no reason why India should complain. Or not use it to its advantage.
Further, bilateralism works between constitutionally stable states. Pakistani democracy has come a long way since Musharraf, but isn’t quite in control of the key levers of policy yet. So who do you sign up with? If so often new rulers take power in Pakistan after killing, jailing or exiling their predecessors, even bringing their own bespoke constitutions, why would they honour their international commitments?
That is why Pakistan has calmly repudiated the Simla Agreement, Lahore and Islamabad declarations, and will continue doing so. This is evidence enough that bilateralism has failed. My proposition, therefore, is that any settlement with Pakistan won’t last unless it comes with big-power guarantees. So, go, seek out big-power help from a position of strength. Breaking out of the Cold War black box is a thought worth debating in Modi’s India.
A version of this article was first published on 8 April 2017.