As India’s Modi drags Pakistan into election campaign, will ties worsen?

Unlike in 2019, Pakistan was largely absent from India’s election rhetoric. Now that’s changed – after a three-word social media post. What’s next for the neighbours?

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is campaigning to lead his BJP for a third consecutive term in power. [Harish Tyagi/EPA]
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is campaigning to lead his BJP for a third consecutive term in power [Harish Tyagi/EPA]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s former information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, says he did not realise that a three-word post on social media platform X on May 1 would inject his country into a heated conversation it had otherwise skirted until then: India’s noisy election campaign.

“Rahul on fire …” he wrote, reposting a video clip of Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the Indian opposition Congress party, in which he could be seen criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).


Chaudhry’s post, which came in the midst of India’s massive election process that spans seven different voting days, starting in April and ending in June, immediately went viral, racking up more than 1.8 million views. It was retweeted 1,800 times and received over 1,500 replies.

Among those who responded was Amit Malviya, the boss of the BJP’s information technology wing, who oversees the party’s vast social media machinery. Malviya accused Chaudhry of promoting Congress leader Gandhi.

“Is the Congress planning to contest election in Pakistan? From a manifesto, that has imprints of the Muslim league to a ringing endorsement, from across the border, Congress’s dalliance with Pakistan can’t get more obvious,” Malviya wrote.

The Muslim League, one of pre-Partition India’s major political forces, was behind the movement that led to the creation of Pakistan.

A day later, Modi himself referred to Chaudhry’s post during an election rally in his home state of Gujarat.

“You must have heard. Now, Pakistani leaders are praying for Congress,” Modi said. “Pakistan is too keen to make the prince [Gandhi] the prime minister. And we already know that Congress is the disciple of Pakistan. The Pakistan-Congress partnership is now fully exposed.”

Since then, Pakistan has repeatedly figured in speeches of Modi and senior BJP leaders like Home Minister Amit Shah as a battering ram with which to both target the opposition and demonstrate the government’s muscular response during tensions with India’s western neighbour.

After a veteran Congress leader referred to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, Modi used a crude, Hindi sexist metaphor to suggest that his government would show Pakistan its place. Shah, in a speech, said that India under Modi had given a “befitting reply” to “terrorism” from Pakistan.

Modi accused the Congress-led opposition INDIA alliance of batting for Pakistan, giving the neighbour a “clean chit” when it has been accused of “terrorism.”

That increased emphasis on Pakistan contrasts sharply with the months of campaigning that preceded May, when relations between the neighbours were virtually nonexistent as an election theme.

Chaudhry, whose post seemingly set it all off, said he was stunned. “I was not expecting this kind of reaction, particularly from their PM Modi,” the politician told Al Jazeera.

Pakistan’s government has also hit back at comments by Modi and Shah, terming them an “unhealthy and entrenched obsession with Pakistan”.

The statement, issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on May 14, said the comments by Indian leaders revealed a “deliberate intent” to exploit hyper-nationalism for electoral gains.

“The bravado and jingoism exhibited by Indian leaders expose a reckless and extremist mindset. This mindset calls into question India’s capacity to be a responsible steward of its strategic capability,” the statement further said.

Yet a Pakistani infusion in Indian elections is not new; in the past, it has on occasion even become a dominant flavour.

A nationalist narrative

The two neighbours have had a tense relationship since they became sovereign states in August 1947, after the end of British colonial rule in the subcontinent. The nuclear-armed nations have fought three major wars, and share a contentious border in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule only in parts.

Modi and his BJP won a second consecutive term in power in the 2019 election, in which the party’s campaign heavily focused on Pakistan.

On February 14, 2019, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying Indian paramilitary forces in Indian-administered Kashmir, killing 46 soldiers. The Pakistan-based armed group Jaish-e-Muhammad claimed responsibility. Pakistan condemned the attack and denied any involvement. But India has long accused Pakistan of sheltering groups like the Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Days later, on February 26, Indian fighter jets crossed the Line of Control – the de facto border between the two nations in parts of Jammu and Kashmir – and bombed what New Delhi claimed were hideouts of armed fighters preparing to target India.

Pakistan hit back a day later, sending its own fighter jets into Indian-controlled territory, shooting down an Indian jet and arresting the pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, who was released two days later.

The nearly week-long skirmish between the two days brought the two nuclear-armed nations to the brink of war, merely weeks before the Indian election that year.

Subsequently, Pakistan remained a key part of the election campaign. After multiple independent think tanks and analysts concluded, based on their investigations, that Indian jets had not hit any target of significance when they entered Pakistan-controlled territory, opposition parties asked Modi’s government for evidence of the success it had claimed in the mission.

Modi flipped those questions on their head, alleging that they showed how the opposition did not trust India’s armed forces and instead believed Pakistan – which had also denied any major damage from Indian strikes – more.

Though the Indian PM has once again brought Pakistan into the election campaign, Walter Ladwig, a senior lecturer of international relations at London’s King’s College, said that compared with 2019, Islamabad was now a secondary concern for New Delhi, with Beijing becoming the “principal foreign policy challenge”.

“It is true that the events of the Balakot attack in 2019 were used in the campaign, but that was a pretty unusual occurrence,” Ladwig said, referring to the town in Pakistan that Indian jets bombed. “In this election, I see the invocations of Pakistan as a way of distracting attention from the fact that India has lost territory to China and the government has been unable to significantly improve the situation or achieve a return to the pre-2020 status quo.”

Ladwig was referring to the clashes between India and China in June 2020 in the Himalayan region of Galwan, in which more than 20 Indian soldiers died, whereas China lost four soldiers.

Since then, many independent analysts have pointed to evidence that the People’s Liberation Army has taken over chunks of territory India previously controlled along their disputed border. The Indian government denies it has lost any land to China.

Is it all rhetoric?

Despite the reaction to his post on May 1, Chaudhry doubled down, and two days, he later posted another message, suggesting that religious minorities in India could provide a robust challenge to the BJP if they united.

A few days later, Modi once again insinuated a pact between the Congress party and Pakistan, without offering any evidence.

“The Congress’s cross-border B-team has become active. Tweets are coming in from across the border to lift the Congress’s morale. In return, the Congress is giving Pakistan a clean chit in cases of terrorism,” he said.

For Qamar Cheema, an expert on international affairs and executive director of Sanober Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank, the references to Pakistan in the campaign reflect the “changing nature of the idea of India”, from a secular state to a Hindu majoritarian polity.

What happens if the BJP wins again?

Many opinion polls suggest that Modi and the BJP are firm favourites to return to power for a third time.

If that happens, Chaudhry, the former Pakistani minister, said bilateral ties – already barely functional – would suffer further.

“If BJP and Modi win the election by sweeping the polls, the way they are claiming, relations with Pakistan will not improve, but instead, deteriorate even more,” he said.

But some analysts believe that despite Modi’s rhetoric, Pakistan’s endemic economic problems and India’s desire to focus its attention on the threat from China give both New Delhi and Islamabad an incentive to significantly improve relations.

Several Indian governments in recent decades, Ladwig pointed out, had tried – but failed – to work with their Pakistani counterparts to improve bilateral relations. In his first term, Modi too made a surprise visit to Pakistan, as the neighbours tried to revive talks before an attack in Indian-administered Kashmir soon after snuffed out those prospects.

“But now in his third term, Modi would be thinking about his legacy,” Ladwig said. “Some sort of lasting rapprochement with Pakistan” could serve that purpose, he added.

Source: Al Jazeera