Indian Elections and the Regional Geopolitics

The outgoing Sunday marked conclusion of sixth leg of the seven-phase Indian elections where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is eyeing a second term against the coalition led by Indian National Congress, which seeks to bring back its glory days.

Unlike 2014 elections when BJP came to power primarily on the back of strong development rhetoric, this time security issues dominated the talk. Whether it was taking a tougher stance on Pakistan or moving towards greater cooperation and a more partisan relationship with the United States, the Indian foreign policy has become much more vocal in the past few years. This is in line with the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist party’s belief in India’s greater ‘rightful’ role in shaping the global agenda in the 21st century.

And now the stage is all set for another epic battle in the world’s largest democracy with the winner to not only set the future course for India but also the region at large, particularly South Asia which has often foud itself at the risk of geopolitical tensions thanks to the two nuclear states, India and Pakistan.

Just earlier in February this year, the region was at the brink of nuclear escalations in the wake of Pulwama attack in the disputed Kashmir territory which saw over 40 Indian reserve soldiers killed, and led to Indian Air Force jets penetrating Pakistani mainland to drop ‘payload’.

However, the western neighbour the very next day did a symbolic deterrent counterattack by entering Indian territory, which raised alarm bells among pundits of a tense standoff between the two arch rivals and the possibility of each one-upping the other.

What lies ahead for the region inhabiting some 25% of the world population very much depends on the outcome of these elections and how the winner treads policy line vis-a-vis Pakistan, as well as China.

The BJP for its part hasn’t even mentioned the name of Pakistan in its manifesto, however, it has started the same document under the heading ‘Nation First’ in classic Trumpian style, with promises of string action against any sort of terrorism – something it blames on Pakistan. For long, the party has shied away from any talks with its western neighbour on the much-repeated rhetoric that “talks and terror can’t go together”. It has not only called off the meeting of Indo-Pak foreign ministers on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly, but also refused to attend the annual session of SAARC in Pakistan, South Asia’s only major multilateral body which in the past 5 years hasn’t had much multilateral activity.

The manifesto further talks of giving a free hand to the Indian security forces and getting them latest equipment, such as the French Rafale fighter jets, replacing the current fleet of almost obsolete Russian Mirages. The ruling party has also flirted with war rhetoric against Pakistan in order to appease its socially conservative and nationalist vote bank. Repeated references of the “surgical strikes” and “teaching Pakistan a lesson” have been common themes at its rallies.

Compared to BJP, Indian National Congress has been more composed in its promises on the national security front, but doesn’t waste any time scoring quick brownie points with its references to “decisively defeating” Pakistan in 1965 and 1971 wars. However, it does seem more open to dialogue and talks of working out a mechanism with neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, to resolve the long-standing issue of fishermen that mistakenly cross international borders.

Its primary is that Congress calls for a more multilateral approach, as opposed to BJP’s flexing military arm unilaterally. On combating terrorism and containing Pakistan, it promises of working within the ambit of international framework, such as the United Nations, for an active system of terror listing and sanctions. The party reiterates its commitment to non-alignment, a policy India’s first prime minister and the great grandfather of current prime ministerial candidate had envisaged. Regarding defence, it doesn’t hint at any major upgrade in weapons and equipment and is also more open to regional bodies with particular mention to SAARC in the context of increasing regional trade and cultural exchanges.

Suffering from a strong anti-incumbency bias, the BJP has tried the oldest trick in strongmen’s book: making it all about the national security. And in India, nothing is more effective than digs at Pakistan. Now if the party comes to power, it might have to actually act upon some of these statements or risk losing the electoral base. Being true to the word would mean heightened tensions in the region and little possibility of talk, as India and Pakistan has rarely met through official channels since 2016. With Pakistani military calling the shots on the other side of the border and hawks dominating Indian policy, things might get even more ugly between the two neighbours and raises the spectre of war between the nuclear states.

Whether Indian voters have an appetite for another term of cold relations with Pakistan as well as an unconnected region will be revealed on May 23.