A new awakening?
Having the SAARC leaders at his swearing-in has given Modi a head start with neighbours
As the Narendra Modi government was being sworn in at New Delhi on Monday evening, the excitement had already passed from the BJP’s unbelievable victory to Modi’s masterly move in heralding India as a true SAARC leader and scoring a foreign affairs coup even before his government was in the saddle. This he did through the decision to invite SAARC leaders for his swearing-in.
That this group had heads of two troublesome neighbours — Pakistan and Sri Lanka — made the exercise even more interesting and exciting. As for a full two days the media speculated on whether Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would accept Modi’s invitation or not, these questions appeared ludicrous.
Of course Sharif will come, I told whoever asked me. Why wouldn’t he? After all the Sharif of today is a more pragmatic and sober leader than the leader of the late 1990s, who was so unceremoniously thrown out by a Musharraf coup in 1999.
Lahore bus journey
Soon after the baton passed from the Vajpayee government to the UPA I in 2004, I heard surprisingly disappointed voices in both Karachi and Lahore. There was almost a dirge being sung in Pakistan on the future of Indo-Pak ties. Prime Minister AB Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore might have been reciprocated with a Kargil by the treacherous Pakistani Army, but the flamboyant, poetry-quoting and ever-smiling Indian Prime Minister had stolen the hearts of quite a few Pakistanis.
“If at all India and Pakistan can move towards lasting peace, it can be only during a BJP prime minister’s reign” is the refrain I’ve heard in Pakistan over the last two decades. Their reasoning is simple: the RSS will never allow a Congress-led regime to shake hands with Pakistan.
Well, after the nightmare of 26/11 unfolded in Mumbai, there was no way a Congress-led UPA could hold any meaningful dialogue with any Pakistan government. Forget the BJP or the RSS, the fury in this country and its people who had watched on their TV screens that horror unfold over three long days, would allow no dialogue with Pakistan.
A leap of faith
That was the past. Coming to the present, while one mostly heard voices of horror in the Pakistani media over an impending Modi victory during the campaign phase, in Karachi, the trade and industry lobby was actually looking forward to a Modi victory. Well before the results came out, Majyd Aziz, former president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), had written: “The buzz in the (Pakistani) bazaars and in various trade organisations is that there would be a shift in the Pakistani-specific thinking from Chief Minister Modi to Prime Minister Modi.”
He had recalled how a KCCI delegation that had met Modi in December 2011 in Ahmedabad had been assured that the Gujarat chief minister wanted cordial relations with Pakistan. “He had even said he was in favour of relaxing visa norms, particularly for travel to the Ajmer dargah. Advising the power-starved Sindh region to follow the Gujarat model of development in infrastructure, drinking water availability and power generation, he had invited Pakistani industrialists to establish textile units in Gujarat, telling them the state had sufficient power and all facilities would be extended to Pak investors.”
So what expectation does he, as a textile industrialist, have from the Modi government now? “As a Pakistani industrialist who has a zealous preference for liberalisation of trade and investment between the two SAARC members, I think India now has a pragmatic, corporate-minded, focused leader who will not sacrifice the economy at the altar of parochial or dynastic politics.”
Aziz is willing to ignore the “rhetorical outbursts regurgitated by hawkish elements within the BJP or its fundamentalist allies”. He believes Modi has a “game plan ready to make India an economic powerhouse; he has understood the dynamics of regional economic integration and this was superbly manifested by his landmark invitation to SAARC leaders to attend his swearing-in ceremony. A small step for diplomacy but a giant leap for SAARC trade/investment process.”
How closely a beleaguered Pakistan is watching the new ministry formation in India can be seen from Aziz, an ethnic Gujarati whose parents had migrated from Kathiawar, cheering well before the actual announcement “Modi’s choice of Arun J and Nirmala S in Finance and Commerce”!
At one level, it is scary to note that expectations from the Modi regime are high not only in India but Pakistan too! This is a far cry from Modi’s “Mian Musharraf” days and a significant example of the huge transformation in the BJP leader and his swift journey from being a divisive and polarising leader to the prime minister of a country as diverse and pluralistic as India.
By a single stroke and a diplomatic coup in inviting the SAARC leaders, including Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, sending into a tizzy Tamil Nadu leaders, particularly Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who despite her non-NDA status is an ally of sorts, Modi has made a huge symbolic statement.
One who has travelled in the Indian subcontinent is surely aware how hated India is among its smaller neighbours, including Bangladesh which we had, ironically, “liberated”. All of them call us “big brother”, in other words “big bully”. An Indian Prime Minister who can change that idiom will surely have his name etched memorably in history. Forget India and Indians, Modi, with his overwhelming mandate and such a strong government that is not dependent on any of its allies, has the unique opportunity of taking entire South Asia on the path of development and prosperity even while changing the fortunes of an India that was poised for an economic take-off a few years ago, before it faltered, stumbled and fell off the global radar.
For almost a decade now Indians have been waiting impatiently for their lives to improve; and what ordinary Indians ask for is not much: a decent education, a decent job, enough food in their homes and the ability to live their lives in dignity, safety and peace. Hopefully in all the pomp and glory and triumph of the colourful swearing-in ceremony, the man who came from a humble background and fought against all odds to reach 7 Race Course Road, will keep his gaze focused on these millions of ordinary Indians even while he ends the policy paralysis that corporate India has been asking for and unshackles the power of a sleeping giant.
Only then will that giant really awaken. Just like Rabindranath Tagore said: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…into that heaven of freedom my Father, let my country awake.”