At a recent briefing for Parliamentarians in Islamabad, there were fond references to the "political legacy" of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), particularly former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his trip to Lahore by bus in 1999. India's election is being keenly watched in Pakistan and a number of issues are in abeyance till a new Prime Minister takes over. The official line is that Pakistan respects any democratic outcome and Prime Minister Muhammed Nawaz Sharif has maintained that he is an advocate of peace with India whoever comes to power. There seems to be keenness on the resumption of the composite dialogue and some progress on Kashmir too.
The popular sentiment is that the Congress hasn't done much for Indo- Pak peace and it is the BJP which has moved things forward in the past. Once again Pakistan is looking to the party for some initiatives though there is more than a tinge of apprehension. Already there are disquieting pronouncements from the BJP. Pakistanis are wont to say that while their election campaign last year steered clear of India bashing, the same is not the case across the border. Well, Modi is no Vajpayee and there is the dark shadow of the Gujarat post Godhra violence over him.
Mariana Babar, diplomatic correspondent for The News says, "I know and am familiar with the BJP style of governance in New Delhi. I do not know Modi. When last in government the BJP was serious and exhibited political will to improve relations with Pakistan. This was reversed when the highly controversial and unacceptable Kargil operation took place by Pervez Musharraf, who is today facing treason charges in Pakistan. If the BJP comes to power again, it will not be Modi alone but the BJP government that Pakistan will be dealing with. Modi himself remains unpredictable as prime minister, but what is a given is that as he seeks greater economic development for India, Pakistan is one country he cannot easily ignore."
Going by Modi's much publicized performance as chief minister Gujarat, Pakistanis are hopeful that he would stress on issues of governance, economy and trade. However, human rights campaigner and lawyer Asma Jahangir warns of more hawkish behaviour from both sides. "Whether BJP comes to power or the Congress, it will make very little difference to Pakistan India relationship. However, if the BJP or any other party is led by a person like Modi who symbolizes intolerance and some would say extreme intolerance towards religious minorities, it would first undermine India's democratic credentials. Secondly, it will give a disappointing message to Pakistani and Bangladeshi liberal or progressive minded people. It will become a further tool in the hands of hawks to deepen mistrust between the two countries and its people.It will be very difficult for any Pakistan PM to trust Modi or to be in close engagement with him."
Others like Sherry Rehman, President of the Jinnah Institute, a think tank, and former US ambassador find it simplistic to hope the BJP can take things forward. "The received wisdom is that the Congress was a victim of its own liberal drift, and that perhaps the Right can go forward as Vajpayee did, but I find this political construct too simplistic. I do worry about state responses in a bilateral crisis:will a Rightist leader be able to show restraint? Will their rhetoric ramp up the blood-pumping chauvinism that we have walked away from in mainstream Pakistan? So yes, that is a worry," she says.
She points out that Pakistanis by and large look to dialogue and peace with India. "Pakistanis no longer cite India in election call-outs as a means to rally votes. But in India we see Modi using Pakistan as stick to beat opponents. Let's hope that changes. Whatever the election outcome, there is a clear swing to the right, and that is always worrying for countries that lurch from crisis to crisis. We seriously need more sophisticated diplomacy between India and Pakistan. I doubt if that is likely in the near future, irrespective of who rules New Delhi, but momentum on talks must resume, with at east one or two tangible gains to show to the people of both countries," she adds.
Asad Umar, Member of the National Assembly from Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) says a number of Pakistanis are a bit concerned in terms of the policy Modi would adopt but India is a mature democracy and nothing drastic can happen. There are concerns also on the bilateral dialogue on trade and other issues."Will there be another ice age in our relations?" he wonders. The BJP is looked on favorably for Vajpayee's efforts and the near breakthrough in 1999. It is difficult to predict how Modi will approach matters though there is a belief that hardliners can carry it off rather than a soft Congress, he adds.
While there are concerns over the violence in Gujarat, Mr. Umar feels that India's mature democratic system does not allow for much leeway in policy. One leader cannot bring about a change, a drastic one at that, he feels.
Pakistan has just heaved a sigh of relief over the completion of the polls in Afghanistan and will have to wait till April 24 for a new leader there. A month later India too will have a new Parliament in place. With a change in leadership and policy, Pakistan is faced with the daunting task of dealing with two new governments in its troubled neighbourhood with whom its relations are far from ideal. Though little is said, a lot is expected of the new Indian government, and ensuring peace in the subcontinent is not the least of them.