Among South Asian countries, there is some anxiety about a possible Bharatiya Janata Party victory in the upcoming Indian elections. Surprisingly, BJP pragmatists might live and let live.
with reports from Colombo, Dhaka, Lahore and New Delhi
At the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi, the mood is upbeat. Though it is early, many dhoti-clad hopefuls with the ubiquitous tilak on the forehead are hanging around, in search of a party ticket to contest the general election tentatively scheduled for April.
Sushma Swaraj, the party spokesperson, says the BJP is confident of obtaining a comfortable Lok Sabha majority. While political pundits may not all share this optimism, most predict that the BJP will emerge as an important player in the post-election scenario. The implications of a BJP victory, both for minority groups within India as well as the rest of South Asia, are indeed consequential.
The resignation of Lai Krishna Advani, the conservative pro-Hindu partys prime ministerial candidate, because of murky Jain bribery scandal allegations has not dampened spirits. In fact, says Ms Swaraj, “By resigning and vowing not to contest the elections till his name is cleared, Advaniji has thrown the ball back in Prime Minister Raos court.”
The partys strong showing in municipal elections in the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, its joining a coalition government with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, and its respectable electoral results in Kamataka in the south, where it previously failed to make a presence, have all pushed the party into what some believe is a neck-to-neck position with the ruling Congress party.
Vir Sanghvi, of the political weekly Sunday says, “The anti-incumbency syndrome that has dominated assembly election results in recent years will work against the Congress. And now that the Janata Dal has self-destructed, the BJP will be the obvious alternative.” Some say the centrist and left parties will align to keep the BJP out of power, while others predict an alliance between Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, select Congressmen and the BJP. Whatever the prediction, no one is leaving the BJP out of their calculations.
And that includes analysts in the neighbouring countries of South Asia. The majority of those consulted in Pakistan and Bangladesh consider the prospects of a BJP victory with some trepidation. These fears have to do with the implications of a party pushing an overtly Hindu agenda.
Former Indian Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit agrees that apprehensions are expected, especially in Pakistan. However, much of these fears are misplaced. “No party can drastically alter the countrys foreign policy, as they all must acknowledge and operate within the limits of responsibility,” he says. And there are those within the BJP, looking ahead to the day when the party would actually have to rule, who have been trying to project a more moderate image and to distance the BJP from the stridency associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
In the quiet, tree-lined office, a confident Ms Swaraj makes light of all these fears. As the major player in the region, India has to provide sound leadership by adopting “a helpful attitude and avoiding the overbearing big-brother mantle,” says Ms Swaraj. “Our priority is to have cordial relations with all South Asian countries, especially Pakistan.” But, she adds, “If Pakistan fails to reciprocate despite Indias goodwill, we will not bow down.”
Advantage for Jamaat-e-Islami
In Islamabad, some experts are positively skeptical about the prospects for bilateral relations if the BJP rides the chariot. Says senior journalist and political observer Abbas Rashid: “The BJP coming to power would increase tension and certainly not be very promising for South Asia. Ominous is more like it, however bad the Congress might have been. “Mr Rashid says that although many welcome the BJPs economic policies, “on political issues, the partys rational side is swamped by the hysterical element.”
There is consensus among the Pakistani analysts that the immediate advantage of a BJP win would go to the religious parties of Pakistan. Mr Rashid says, “It would strengthen thepolitico-religious lobby here. They would point to Indian secularism as a sham and feel justified in urging Pakistan to forge ahead with its Muslim identity.”
Ever since the restoration of democracy after the death of Zia-ul Haq, religious parties in Pakistan have found it difficult to carve a niche for themselves in mainstream politics. The withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and the start of intra-Afghan fighting left the religious parties without an issue. Staunch supporters of the religious right have since deserted, as shown by the 3 percent vote secured by all religious parties in the 1993 polls.
“There is no enemy anymore to launch jihad against, and the people are fed up with the militancy of the religious groups,” says a former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan. However, if the Hindu right manages to secure a share of power in New Delhi, the repercussions on the political scene in Pakistan will be immediate. “Qazi Sahib is already in search of a strong issue to regain the political clout that his party lost in the last elections,” says one political analyst in Lahore, referring to the Jamaat chief, Qazi Hussein Ahmed.
The Jamaat is today faced with internal wrangling and disillusionment among workers on the one hand, and an unresponsive political environment on the other. “A BJP victory across the border will make it easy for parties like Jamaat to cultivate support from people on various religious and political issues,” says Khaled Ahmed, editor of the Lahore Urdu weekly Aaj Kal. “Because of their extreme viewpoints on issues such as Kashmir, the religious parties here are bound to gain a definite political advantage with a BJP victory.”
There are other political scientists, however, who maintain that relations between Islamabad and New Delhi might actually start improving with the BJP in power. Indo-Pak relations recorded an all-time high when Atal Behari Vajpayee was Foreign Minister for 28 months in the Janata Dal coalition in 1977-79.
Mr Vajpayee, who is heralded as the BJPs prime ministerial candidate after Mr Advanis withdrawal, recently told an Indian magazine that he had always tried to develop good relations with Pakistan.
Professor.S.D. Muni, a specialist in South Asian studies at New Delhis Jawaharlal Nehru University, is hopeful about better Indo-Pak relations under a BJP government. “This would give India a more perfect Hindu identity and reinforce the two-nation ideology on which the very formation of Pakistan rests.”
Mr Dixit agrees, “Extreme antitheses always find a way to co-exist. The trouble Pakistan faces is confronting Indias secular identity.” He suggests that Islamabad would find a BJP government with a strong majority easier to deal with than a confused coalition. “Pakistans relations with India have always been the best when there has been a strong government here at the centre,” he says, citing the days of the Rajiv Gandhi regime before its credibility began to erode.
Conceding that foreign policy is a “delicate issue” that will not witness a drastic turnaround with a change in government, Ms Swaraj says that there is actually more likelihood that the Kashmir issue will be sorted out bilaterally under the BJP.
Support for Tigers
As Sri Lanka enters the 13th year of bitter civil strife caused by the Tamil demand for a separate homeland, Ms Swaraj says that a BJP government would raise the Tamil issue in international fora for humanitarian support. “However, we will not send any signals of support for terrorism, the Tamil question is essentially an internal matter of Sri Lanka.” While the BJP would support a negotiated settlement, “no vocal support for the Tamil cause would be beneficial for any political party at this stage.”
In the past, the BJPs views on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were clear. At a meeting of a visiting Lankan parliamentary delegation in July 1990, the partys leadership said that the LTTE should be “isolated and crushed”. Dr Stanley Kalpage, Sri Lankas then High Commissioner in New Delhi, recalls that Mr Advani and Mr Vajpayee were present.
Times have changed, and the BJPs own stance on the Tigers has been influenced by the need to garner support from the Tamil-speaking Indian South. The BJPs sympathies for the LTTE, even though muted, are explained by the fact that “as a party of the north, with little support in the south, it is seeking to identify with southern causes,” according to one Lankan analyst.
However, others believe that the BJP is not inclined to support the LTTEs militant campaign despite the overt sympathy of the Shiv Sena, the BJPs more radical ally, for the Tigers. The situation in Tamil Nadu, rather than the inclinations of the Shiv Sena, will be the deciding factor in relations with Sri Lanka, says Prof Mum. And both the major political parties of the state, AIADMK and DMK, generally oppose the Tamil Tigers, much to the satisfaction of Lankan diplomats.
As a self-declared Hindu kingdom, with a majority Hindu population, and a written ban on cow slaughter, Nepal has commonalities with Hindu India. Its ties are bound to be even better in the case of a BJP victory, according to many observers. According to Prof Muni, “Relations with Nepal would witness an upswing.” The consensus is that, among the national parties of the kingdom, a BJP victory would most benefit the more tradition-bound Rastriya Prajatantra Party, made up of politicians of the old Panchayat regime.
Recent press reports speak of the BJPs support for radical Hindu elements in Nepals tarai region, which is culturally-linked to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the Hindutva wave is strong. Asked about this alleged support, Ms Swaraj says, “We dont have to support them. Nepal is the only declared theocratic Hindu state in the world.”
However, according to one Tribhuvan University scholar, the BJPs backing of King Birendras (Hindu) monarchy during the 1990 pro-democracy movement makes some Nepali democrats wary. Ms Swaraj says that the reports of BJPs support for King Birendra are erroneous. “We support democracy there,” she adds.
Achyut Raj Regmi, a former cabinet minister and President of the Nepal Committee of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, feels that the rise of the Hindutva wave has been positive for Nepal, as it has “strengthened our Hindu culture and provided spiritual upliftment.” He adds, “India should not hide behind the name of secularism. Because of secularism, there is no peace in India.”
This is not how Sridhar Khatri, a political scientist at Tribhuvan, sees it. “Any type of fundamental revivalism will encourage negative and unnecessary reaction in Nepal, especially among non-Hindu or semi-Hindu minority groups of Nepal,” he says. Mr Khatri and many other scholars maintain that the cross-border influence of political Hinduism has needlessly aggravated HinduMuslim relations in the tarai region, as is evident from the rioting that took place in Nepalganj in November.
Rajendra Dahal, editor at the Nepali weekly Deshantar, has another perspective: “Even though Nepal is perceived to be a Hindu rastra, what is prevalent is a more liberal brand of Hinduism known as sanatan dharma, and not the didactic Hinduism pushed by the VHP.” Mr Dahal says that Kathmandus intelligensia prefers Mr Vajpayees liberalism over Advanis harder line. “Vajpayee, as Foreign Minister, was far more accommodating towards neighbours than Prime Minister Morarji Desai. It was under Vajpayee that the Indo-Nepal trade and transit was possible.”
Dhruba Kumar, another political scientist at Tribhuvan, holds determinist views, “It does not matter what party is in power in India,” he says. “India continually takes advantage, and exploits its smaller neighbours and will continue to do so, no matter what.”
“That the BJP continues its angry rhetoric of Hindutva causes uneasiness among Bangladeshs 90 percent Muslims,” says an expert at Dhaka University. He, like mostothers , is convinced that a BJP victory will be translated into less accommodation on bilateral matters. This would include the Farakka water issue, Bangladeshs main bone of contention with India, disputed sovereignty of Talpatty island, and other border disputes.
Prof Muni feels that bilateral relations will depend mainly on how the politicalcrisis in Bangladesh sorts itself out. “It is true with all the South Asian neighbours, including Bangladesh: the weaker the government, the more adversarial a stance it will take with India. This would be true even with Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina, who is perceived to be pro-India.”
A BJP victory is bound to trigger a more-anti-Indian-than-thou race in Bangladesh. The rise of the BJP has, in fact, already affected Bangladeshi parties, with most shifting towards a more “Islamic” stance on issues. This shift has also been made by the Awami League, with its traditional Hindu support. It is also seen to have a weakness for the Congress party because of support received during 1971. In fact, Shiekh Hasina, who was criticised for not condemning the Babri mosque demolition vehemently enough, is expected to ensure that nothing of the sort happens again.
Ms Swaraj says the BJP would like to revert to the cordial Indo-Bangla relations that existed when India supported Bangladeshs movement for independence in 1971. However, there are three ticklish issues that have to be resolved. “The first is Bangladeshs support for the insurgencies in the Northeast. The second, the question of Chakma tribals who fled their homes because they have been given the choice between death and conversion. And third, the large-scale Bangladesh infiltration that poses an economic burden as well as a political risk for India as many of them work for Pakistans Inter-Services Intelligence.”
There are those in Dhaka who believe, as one journalist puts it, “that the BJPs bark will be stronger than its bite”. They cite the threat to deport thousands of Bangladeshi refugees in Bombay-which did not happen. Others feel that the Bangladeshi parties must mute their anti-Indian and anti-Hindu rhetoric so that the BJP is not forced to react belligerently. The Bangladesh military, especially, is said to be worried that anti-Hindu fervour in Bangladesh may lead to a Hindu exodus to India, angering the BJP.
The economic pragmatists are the least worried. They point to the fact that Bangladesh is the 11th largest market for Indian goods and services. “It would not be in the interest of a government in New Delhi, BJP or otherwise, to spoil the marketing relationship,” says a businessman. The recent refusal by the Indian Government to lower tariff barriers for Bangladeshi goods has already caused worries among Indian businessmen that Bangladesh might reciprocate.
What is interesting is that Indias stunning capture of the Bangladeshi market happened during the reign of Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, a supposedly anti-Indian party in relation to Sheikh Hasinas India-leaning Awami League.
What seems obvious, in Dhaka as in Colombo, Kathmandu and Karachi, is that it is too early to give strait-jacket explanations of party positions and reactions. What a BJP victory will mean for bilateral relations with Indias neighbours, and for South Asias divided nations, is difficult to predict. There are too many variables, both in issues that impel the BJP itself in its politics, and in the issues that impel the domestic politics of each of Indias neighbours. Perhaps the fallout of a Bharatiya Janata Party win will surprise all, especially the pundits.
Reporting from Pakistan by Mazhar Zaidi