Every country has its blind spots: issues that cannot be discussed rationally in the public sphere. In India one of these stands out – Pakistan.
On Indian television news, anchors invariably treat Pakistani guests as punching bags. And should you mention India and Pakistan in the same breath on social media, odds are that you will immediately be met by a chorus of outrage by angry Indians. In the Indian imagination, Pakistan has been left behind to wallow in ignominy while India marches resolutely toward inevitable glory. How dare you club them together?
This notion isn’t entirely baseless. According to the International Monetary Fund, India’s $2.94 trillion economy is slightly more than ten times larger than Pakistan’s $284 billion economy. Looked at differently, about 120 million Maharashtrians generate $411 billion in economic output, nearly 1.5 times as much as 205 million Pakistanis. At $430 billion in August, India’s foreign exchange reserves dwarfed Pakistan’s meagre $10 billion. In many areas of scientific inquiry – for instance, space exploration – the two countries are clearly not comparable.
Nonetheless, as with so much else in the new India, the conventional view on Pakistan is hyperbolic. In gross domestic product terms, much of India’s lead can be explained by the simple fact that India houses nearly seven times as many people as its neighbour. The average Indian, whose per capita income is $2,170, is only 1.5 times richer than his Pakistani counterpart. By contrast, the average Chinese, with a per capita income of $10,100, is nearly five times richer than the average Indian.
Should you dip into Pakistani newspapers, you will quickly come to realise that the country grapples with many problems familiar to Indians. A Supreme Court given to undisciplined meddling in the executive domain? Policemen casually familiar with torture? A government allergic to criticism? An inability to slay the monster of urban air pollution? The idea that a charismatic leader can simply hit the restart button on a country, like rebooting a laptop? Pakistan has them all.
Has the advent of Modi strengthened or weakened Pakistan? For the prime minister’s many fans this is a heretical question. How could India’s muscular leader have done anything but weaken an historical foe?
We’ll only know for certain when future historians pore over the Modi era. In the meantime, the argument would look something like this: The February Balakot airstrikes called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff and forced the Pakistani army to reconsider the use of its favourite weapon against India – jihadist proxies. At the same time, the growing economic gap with India, pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and the handcuffs of an International Monetary Fund lending programme have also limited Pakistan’s ability to respond to Modi’s voiding of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcation of the state into two federally administered Union territories.
Not only can Pakistan do nothing to force its claim, but the world knows it can do nothing to force its claim. Eventually this could nudge Pakistan to become less of a garrison state – one dominated by a powerful military – and more of a normal democracy where elected politicians spend most of their time trying to please voters with roads, schools and hospitals. Why maintain an outsize army when Kashmir is a lost cause and nuclear weapons anyway guarantee a large measure of national security?
Such an outcome would undoubtedly benefit India; it would also benefit the vast majority of Pakistanis. But it’s not the only way of looking at Modi’s possible impact on Pakistan. An alternative thesis, one that focuses less on actions and more on ideas, suggests the opposite result. Instead of weakening Pakistan, the Modi government has strengthened the Islamic Republic.
At the heart of this argument lies a simple understanding of the powerful idea that birthed Pakistan to begin with: that undivided India’s Muslim minority could never hope to be treated fairly by the Hindu majority in an independent country. As the standard Pakistani version of history goes, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a staunch secularist for much of his political career, tried in vain to get a fair deal for his community from Congress. Only in frustration did he pursue Partition, an outcome that his opponents, including Jawaharlal Nehru, derided as a silly fantasy that could never be fulfilled.
Against this historical backdrop, even after the passage of seven decades, a question hung over Pakistanis. Would they have been better off had Partition never happened? Or in the case of Mohajirs, migrants from Hindi-speaking parts of India: Would they have been better off had they never left?
Six years ago, you could plausibly argue that, for all its flaws, India offered citizens of all faiths a combination of economic opportunity and constitutional protections superior to anything available across the border. After all, would you rather be a software engineer in Bangalore or Lahore? An actor in Mumbai or Karachi? A journalist in Delhi or Islamabad?
The question mark has now vanished. In the past five years, India has morphed in the Pakistani imagination, not without reason, to a place where Muslims face mob violence, political marginalisation and, in some cases, the threat of disenfranchisement. Far from weakening Pakistan, the Modi dispensation has instead given the country’s founding ideology its biggest boost in a long, long time.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.