India’s populist public discourse is alarming for regional peace

India’s populist public discourse is alarming for regional peace

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Since the post-Pulwama military standoff in 2019, India and Pakistan relations have been in a blind alley. Neither side has shown flexibility in their positions to restore bilateral dialogue, which is imperative to prevent the region from the risks of catastrophic conflict escalation between nuclear-armed belligerent neighbors. Besides, the great powers’ increasing strategic competition also lessened their interest in persuading the neighbors to soften their postures for the recommencement of a dialogue process. Both sides now need to act rationally to avoid war rhetoric for mustering the masses’ support during their general elections.

Ironically, India and Pakistan rivalry has hampered South Asian regional connectivity and made the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation practically dysfunctional since 2016. Both sides exchanged barbs over cross-border terrorism during the last Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. Despite knowing war cannot solve their problems, they have been reluctant to exercise alternative means to settle their disputes. Besides, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), once again, has been using warlike rhetoric to reap hyper-nationalist and Hindutva forces’ support in the next general elections. 

On July 26, the Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh asserted provocatively that Indian armed forces stand prepared to cross the Line of Control (LoC). Moreover, he solicited the residents of Ladakh to be ready to participate in wars not only indirectly but directly. He said, “We can go to any extreme to maintain the honor and dignity of the country...if that includes crossing the LoC, we are ready to do that.” Why are the Indian armed forces in offensive combat mode, and the defense minister threatening to conduct surgical strikes and prepare civilians for a war? 

Pull-quote: The Indian ruling elite seems convinced that the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan could tax its nationalist narrative, which is the key to winning the 2024 general elections. 

- Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

Pakistan’s military maneuvering or deployment on India’s Western border, including the LoC, is normal. Pakistan has not violated the 2003 cease-fire arrangement at LoC and the Working Boundary since February 2021. Hence, there are other reasons for increasing the temperature on the LoC and dragging Pakistan into India’s populist public discourse. Precisely, it alarms about the probability of a false flag, which could further derail the currently unstable peace between India and Pakistan. 

Perhaps Singh’s rhetoric was an attempt to divert the attention of the Indian people from recent violent ethnic clashes in the BJP-ruled northeastern state of Manipur and the no-confidence vote motion against Narendra Modi’s government by an alliance of opposition parties in the Lok Saba.

The Modi cohorts are startled by the recent formation of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), comprising 26 political parties. INDIA has planned to contest elections on the country’s struggling economy, rising unemployment, minorities increasing insecurity due to Hindu nationalists, particularly Muslims, and a shrinking space for dissent and free media. 

Notably, anti-Pakistan statements are an integral component of the BJP’s general election strategy, which is expected in April-May 2024. They have been known to consistently use anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim catchphrases on the record to stoke hyper-nationalism and reap electoral gains. The Indian defense minister’s recent politically oriented oratory may serve BJP’s domestic agenda, but it is a catalyst for regional strategic instability.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch reacted to Singh by stating India’s belligerent rhetoric was “a threat to the regional peace and stability and contributes to destabilizing the strategic environment in South Asia.” Though the Pakistani political elite refrained from warlike rhetoric, how long will it last? BJP’s militaristic public discourse will inevitably instigate similar discourse in Pakistan. Indeed, such a narrative increases temperatures domestically and spirals cross-border tensions. 

To conclude, currently, India is in a better position to break the impasse and create conditions for the resumption of meaningful dialogue with Pakistan. However, the Indian ruling elite seems convinced that the resumption of dialogue could tax its Hindutva narrative, which is the key to winning the 2024 general elections. 

- Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @zafar_jaspal

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