Will anti-Pakistan rhetoric influence India's elections?


Thursday, 23 May 2024 (09:39 IST)
Old video footage featuring controversial comments made by Mani Shankar Aiyar, a veteran leader of the opposition Indian National Congress (INC) party, have recently resurfaced — raising eyebrows as India's elections enter their final two phases.
In the footage, Aiyar described Pakistanis as the "biggest asset of India" and recommended that India should resume dialog with Pakistan.
His views were echoed by Farooq Abdullah, the former chief minister of the Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir.
Pakistan plays into India's elections
The video's reappearance provided Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) an opportunity to paint the Congress party as "soft" on Pakistan at the height of election season.
"If Pakistan is not wearing bangles, we will make them wear bangles," Modi said in a scathing attack at a rally in Bihar last week. "They don't have flour, they do not have electricity, now I have come to know that they even have a scarcity of bangles."
Modi had said that his government's approach to tackling terror had ushered in a sea change compared to what had taken place during Congress' years in power.
"During the Congress government, the news headlines were of India handing over another dossier to Pakistan about terror activities," Modi said at an election rally in the Latur constituency in India's western state of Maharashtra.
"Today, India doesn't send dossiers. Today, India kills terrorists on its own turf," added Modi.
Anti-Pakistan sentiments have so far not flared during the election season, however, India's neighbor and rival has now become somewhat of a opportune punching bag for politicians.
Over the past few weeks, political parties have exchanged sharp barbs on Pakistan, despite the fact that foreign policy issues have not figured prominently in the campaign so far.
"It [Pakistan] remains an emotive issue for India. After years of suffering cross-border terrorism and Pakistan-sponsored militancy in Kashmir, including the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and the Pulwama attack on paramilitary troopers in 2019, it leaves an indelible scar on the Indian psyche," Shazia Ilmi, a spokesperson for Modi's BJP, told DW.
"The remarks made by Mani Shankar Aiyer and Farooq Abdullah are contentious and condemnable," added Ilmi.
National security discourse
In 2019, when Modi won his second consecutive term in office, the BJP's campaign focused heavily on Pakistan, an important electoral issue at the time.
Months before the 2019 vote, a suicide bomber had attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying Indian paramilitary forces in Indian-administered Kashmir, killing 46 soldiers.
India responded by launching warplanes in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan, where it claimed to have killed militants who had been planning to strike targets in India.
Ajay Bisaria, India's former high commissioner to Pakistan, told DW that the current electoral discourse is more about a posture on national security than about Pakistan policy.
"In 2019, we saw a strong national security-based campaign by the BJP, after the Pulwama attacks and the Balakot airstrikes by India," said Bisaria.
"This time, we see no comparable national security issue, except that this time around, the ruling dispensation is justifiably claiming credit for both its Kashmir and Pakistan policies," the former envoy added.
Political bluster 
Article 370 of the Indian constitution allowed Jammu and Kashmir to have its own constitution and a degree of internal autonomy.  However, the Indian government revoked this status in 2019 and divided the state into two union territories — the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the Union Territory of Ladakh — directly governed by New Delhi.
"The Balakot airstrikes and [India's] article 370 moves can now be reviewed five years later and a reasonable claim be made that Balakot set up credible deterrence against terrorism and the article 370 abrogation set Jammu and Kashmir on a peace trajectory," said Bisaria.
At recent election rallies, BJP leaders Amit Shah, India's home minister; and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath doubled down, emphasizing that a reelected BJP government would take the additional step of "taking back" Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Their statements were in response to recent violent protests witnessed in several parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir over soaring food and energy costs amid a severe economic crisis.
"Congress leaders like Mani Shankar Aiyar say it should not be done as they have an atom bomb," Shah said, referring to the protests. "But let me say that 'Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK)' is part of India and we will take it."
"Clearly, reclaiming PoK is not an immediate issue but the unrest in the region is a stimulus to restate a known position and to underline the power differential between the countries," added Bisaria.
Obsession with Pakistan or electioneering?
Strategic expert C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said Modi has managed to change the terms of engagement with Pakistan.
"It is unfortunate that Modi chose to combine his vigorous response to heaping contempt on Pakistan by pointing to its current economic crisis," Raja Mohan told DW.
"Through the campaign, the prime minister and his Cabinet colleagues have flaunted their new willingness to get inside Pakistan and target the terrorists."
"The needless verbal aggression against Pakistan comes at a time when the new Pakistan government, led by the Sharif brothers — Nawaz and Shehbaz — are sending interesting signals on improving ties with India," Mohan added.
However, Mohan was quick to point out that Modi and his right-wing BJP might hope that their interlocutors in Pakistan will understand that the high-pitched rhetoric is just part of electioneering and does not reflect policy intentions.
Reacting to various statements made by Indian leaders including Modi, Pakistan's Foreign Office said these reflected an unhealthy and entrenched obsession with Pakistan and revealed a deliberate intent to exploit hyper-nationalism for electoral gains.
"These also signify a desperate attempt to deflect attention from mounting domestic and international criticism," Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mumtaz Zahra Baloch told a weekly press briefing when asked about statements being made during the run-up to elections.

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