Now that the Star Wars fever is back, I was reminded of a cartoon from the Ronald Reagan era that referenced the original movie trilogy. As you may remember, Reagan frequently likened the Soviet Union to the Evil Empire from the Star Wars movies.
The rhetoric worked well with his core constituency till ultimately, the realities of global politics intervened and the president was forced to hold a summit with the then Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The cartoon had a chastened Reagan saying goodbye to the Russian leader at the end of the Summit. “Goodbye Mr. Gorbachev”, the cartoon Reagan said. “Give my regards to Mr Vader and all the folks back at the Empire!”
I imagine Narendra Modi felt a bit like that at the end of his visit to Pakistan. For over a decade Modi and his colleagues have vilified Pakistan and its leaders. During his first ever campaign for the Gujarat assembly, Modi suggested that a vote against him was a vote for “Mian Musharraf.” During the Manmohan Singh regime, Sushma Swaraj tweeted that talks could not be held against a background of terror attacks. More recently, BJP president Amit Shah warned that a BJP defeat in Bihar would be greeted with firecrackers in Pakistan.
The BJP’s followers on social media have kept up this cacophony. Anybody they do not approve of is called a traitor and asked to go to Pakistan. (It helps, of course, if the so-called traitor is a Muslim). In the world of BJP trolls, Pakistan is a dark and hell-like place, an Evil Empire in South Asia.
So why then did Modi reverse years of rhetoric? Why did he abandon the stated policy of his own government which took the line that no talks were possible till the terrorists behind the Bombay attacks were handed over to India — or, at the very least, faced some kind of retribution — and which scuppered a recent plan to play cricket with Pakistan?
The explanation offered by policy wonks and foreign affairs pundits is that Washington had something to do with the sudden about-turn. The US wants Pakistan to devote more military resources to the Afghan border. The Pakistanis take the line that this is difficult to do as long as tensions with India are elevated. So, Washington promised the Pakistanis that it would call upon India to ease tensions. And India got a call from the White House.
Seen in this light, the initiatives of the last few weeks (the NSA meeting in Bangkok, Sushma Swaraj’s trip to Pakistan and Modi’s sudden Lahore visit) make sense.
Presumably New Delhi has been assured that this time the Pakistani army is on board (which it wasn’t during AB Vajpayee’s Lahore visit) and some guarantees about a scaling-down of terror attacks on India have also been offered. It is significant that weeks before Modi turned up in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif had asked his ministers to tone down their anti-India rhetoric.
But even though this explanation fits the facts as we know them, it misses out on an important factor: Modi’s own global ambitions. If there is one thing that this prime minister has made clear from the day he was sworn in, it is that he wants to be regarded as a global statesman.
He invited leaders of neighbouring countries to his swearing-in and has spent so much time travelling to foreign capitals that his visits abroad have become the subject of many jokes.
After years of being regarded with suspicion abroad, Modi wants to demonstrate that he is more than a polarising figure or a hate-monger.
Just as he often says that he wants India to be regarded as a global super-power, he also acts as though he wants to be respected as the statesman at the helm of this super-power. Given this view of himself he cannot easily turn down a request from
President Obama (his friend “Barrack”) to help contribute to the fight against terrorism by being friendlier to Pakistan so that the Afghan border can be properly monitored. Moreover, such a request appeals to his own sense of his global importance: he is now part of a global initiative.
However, from Modi’s point of view, the new-found friendship with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan is fraught with risk. This time, he must worry, not about his traditional opponents (who have welcomed the initiative while questioning the about turn), but about his own supporters. Just as Ronald Reagan faced questions from the faithful when he shook hands with the Empire, so Modi must explain to his loyalists why years of anti-Pakistan rhetoric have now suddenly been thrown out of the window. His trolls can no longer ask Shah Rukh Khan to go to Pakistan if Modi himself gets there first.
The second danger is that nearly all guarantees from Pakistan are worthless. There will always be Islamist elements in the Pakistani establishment who will disapprove of peace with India and will try and sabotage it. Sadly another terror attack, attributed as usual, to non-State actors can never be fully ruled out.
And should that happen — God forbid! — then Modi will have a hard time explaining to his faithful why he went to Lahore to hug Nawaz Sharif on his birthday.
The prime minister must know all this. So his decision to go ahead anyway is both brave and commendable.
Every attempt at forging peace comes with its own dangers. But Modi can take comfort from Reagan’s example. Eventually, after many parleys with the emperor, the president did manage to destroy the Evil Empire.
Modi does not need to destroy Pakistan. But if he can manage a terror-free peace, then that alone will be a stupendous achievement: One worth the risk he has taken.
(The views expressed are personal.)