“For now it is Modi, Modi, Modi for me. For the country, actually,” said Jitender Singh, a 38-year-old rickshaw driver in a purple turban in the old part of Delhi. Singh is one of the 814 million legitimate Indian voters who are taking part in the nine-stage polling process to elect 543 members of the Lok Sabha. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is leading the pack, and the projections are it is on its way to form the government, albeit with support from smaller as well as regional parties who are more inclined towards the BJP ideology. All eyes, therefore, are on the now possibility of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi taking over the mantle from Manmohan Singh.
The various analysts and commentators on Pakistan’s electronic media and in their columns in the national newspapers generally opine that things would be rough for Pakistan once Modi settles into the driving seat at 7, Race Course Road in New Delhi. Usually, they give more importance to the rhetorical balderdash regurgitated by Amit Shah and his ilk, who maintain their aggressive posture at most of the campaign rallies. They also routinely refer to Modi’s anti-Pakistan and anti-China statements to prove their point.
Most of them bring up the 27 February, 2002 burning of the train and the ensuing carnage that swept through the Muslim-dominated areas of Gujarat, in which almost 2,000 Muslims were massacred by violent mobs. They fear the revival of anti-Muslim hysteria once the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) commences its tenure. Hardliners in Pakistan foresee enhanced religious polarisation and they are focusing on propagation that the Muslim population in India would be dangerously subject to the Hindu fundamentalist upsurge.
Pakistan’s business community, most of whose leaders are gung-ho about liberalisation of trade and investment with India, are, for the first time, discussing, watching, and trying to understand the dynamics of the Indian election process, and especially the ramifications of a Modi government. The buzz in the 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.
The enlightened businessmen are of the opinion that the trade liberalisation process would withstand the present mantra of some BJP leaders during the campaign, where foreign policy, national security, and religion are clubbed together, and aspersions and insinuations are cast on India’s western neighbour. The Indian Election Commission (EC) has rightly issued a gag order against Amit Shah in response to opposition petitions that he was “poisoning the atmosphere with communal invectives against Muslim”. This is a manifestation of maintaining the secular principles over prejudiced or intolerant attacks on a religious minority.
The businessmen and industrialists of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) take cognisance of the reciprocity extended by Modi when a KCCI delegation met him in December 2011 in Ahmedabad. According to news reports and interviews with some delegation members, Modi assured them that he “is in favour of cordial relations with Pakistan. He wants to help Pakistan out of its power crisis, especially in Sindh”. He advised the delegates that “Sindh could follow the ‘Gujarat Model’ for development of infrastructure, drinking water availability and power generation”.
The delegation members said that “in spite of whatever Pakistan may think about Modi, he was in favour of the fact that procedure to get visas should be relaxed for Pakistanis wanting to visit Ajmer Sharif shrine. Modi informed them that instead of inviting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), it is better to improve trade ties with Pakistan and he invited Pakistani industrialists to establish textile units in Gujarat. He said provision of energy is not an issue in Gujarat and all facilities would be extended to Pakistani investors”. This invitation was given despite the then Pakistan-specific clause of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) prohibiting investment from Pakistan and Indian investment across the border. This offer and this assurance reflect a different Modi than the political demagoguery at campaign rallies and whistle-stops.
Another factor that Pakistani businessmen note on a positive scale is the influence of India’s mega tycoons who are reported to be heavily bankrolling the BJP campaign. The iconic photo of Modi bear-hugging Mukesh Ambani at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit 2013 is taken as a reflection of the close nexus between him and the moneybags of India. The Ambanis, the Godrejs, the Mittals, the Manjals, the Bajajs, et al, are strong proponents of Indo-Pak trade and investment. Yasin Siddik, the dynamic chairman of the powerful All Pakistan Textile Mills Association, was highly optimistic when he remarked to an Indian journal that “the Congress has been conservative in its approach and things are moving very slowly. If the BJP comes into power, they may take a few bold steps that may boost trade”.
Modi’s pragmatism is also succinctly noticeable when someone asked him when he would distribute free laptops in Gujarat. He replied, “I will give them jobs, so that they can buy laptops.” This is the constructive perception that Pakistani businessmen see in Modi’s thought process.
Pakistani businessmen have openly supported granting the status of Most Favoured Nation to India. However, Islamabad, sensing the sensitivities of the misconceived connotations of MFN, changed the nomenclature to a more palatable Non Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA). Yet, the dilly-dallying continues, there is again an aborted take-off, and the issue side-stepped with a terse declaration that once the new government in New Delhi is ready to talk on comprehensive bilateral issues, the NDMA will become operative.
The business community of India and Pakistan must not remain prisoners of history nor should they ignore the fact that over six decades have gone by and the peace dividend has yet to be encashed. There are powerful forces on both sides of the border who continue to demonise the trade liberalisation process. At the same time, emotions and sensationalism reach a high crescendo whenever negative episodes occur. It seems that the bilateral relationship swings between nostalgia and deadlock. The weeds of neglect and contempt are still on the railroad tracks and the cobwebs of distrust and conflict are visible on the ceilings. The businessmen must become energetic game changers in a more prominent way to get the myriad roadblocks on the motorway of trade liberalisation removed. The conferences and conclaves are great public relation extravaganzas, but there is no vigorous determination to achieve nuts and bolts solutions.
Are the denizens of the sub-continent waiting for divine interventions or are they ready for a regional paradigm shift on a fast track? A lot needs to be done, more goodwill needs to be created, and Narendra Modi can transform the illusive, but inevitable, into a black and white reality. Lord Buddha said, “As a solid rock is not shaken by a strong wind, so wise persons remain unaffected by praise or criticism.”
(Orginally published on 13 April 2014)