Interview: Seema Sirohi

Interview: Seema Sirohi


Seema Sirohi is a senior Indian journalist based in Washington, D.C, who writes on foreign policy. She received her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and studied sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She was also a commentator with National Public radio and has made various appearances on the BBC and CNN. Apart from her work as an analyst and journalist, in 2003 she published a book, Sita’s Curse: Stories of Dowry Victims. She recently spoke with Muhammad Akbar Notezai.

What changes have you noticed in Indian politics since Narendra Modi became prime minister?

Since Narendra Modi became prime minister, one noticeable change has been the lack of a coherent opposition. The Congress Party, the national party that governed India for most of its independent history, is in complete disarray with just 44 seats in the lower house of parliament. There is a realignment of other left-of-center parties but it is unclear whether they can come together structurally to mount a proper opposition.

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The other visible aspect is the resurgence of various Hindu nationalist cultural groups such as the RSS and the VHP, which see Modi’s victory as their own. They have begun pursuing their social agenda with vigor by trying to assert the Hindu identity. Reports of camps to convert Muslims and Christians and obstructing inter-religious marriages are disconcerting.

This does not portend well for India, which is a delicately balanced society of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. The secular fabric is what holds it together. It is unclear as yet whether Mr. Modi plans to contain these elements. So far he has remained above the fray by not commenting but his silence is being seen as encouragement of these elements.

How do you view Indian foreign policy under Modi?

Modi has energized India’s foreign policy but more importantly, he has linked his domestic policy to it, the main plank of which is India’s development. The vehicle of choice is his “Make in India” program. He has vigorously engaged India’s major partners, inviting them to participate in its development. The idea is to attract foreign investment but on India’s terms. Japan, China and the United States have showed a renewed interest in India – a major change from just a year ago when the world seemed to have lost interest in the India story.

He has established a confident presence in both India’s neighborhood and beyond. So far he hasn’t put a foot wrong in terms of foreign policy. Modi’s opening move itself was stunning, when he invited leaders of all neighboring countries, including Pakistan, to his swearing-in ceremony. That was foreign policy with flair. No one expected him to command the stage as he did. Then he had an extremely successful visit to the United States, baffling his most severe critics.

He pulled another rabbit out of his hat when he invited President Obama to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade in January. Obama has accepted the invitation, which means he would be the first serving U.S. president to visit India twice – an important signal of where Modi wants to take the India-U.S. relationship. There is a possibility that the two countries would renew their 10-year defense framework agreement in early 2015.

When Indo-U.S. relations are strong, India has more diplomatic space to deal with difficult neighbors such as China and Pakistan. Modi has also activated the “Act East” policy to strengthen relations with East Asia and especially Japan, which sends a clear signal to China.

One question is whether Modi can stabilize India’s traditionally good relations with Russia, because Moscow has opened a front with Pakistan and signed an arms deal with Islamabad, something that has irked India. But then Russia knows that it has very few friends in the world today.

Modi has taken a tougher stand on Pakistan, which means it won’t be business as usual. Pakistan must take concrete steps to shut down terrorist camps if a meaningful dialogue has to occur. Previous Indian governments would break the dialogue when a terrorist attack was traced to Pakistan-based extremists only to resume talks after a while in the interests of peace. This government seems to be different.

What do you think are the likely challenges for the Modi government?

The biggest challenge for India under any government is reviving the economy, creating a manufacturing base, and absorbing the millions of young people looking for jobs. Modi won the huge mandate because his message was development. Now he must deliver. Can he reform the economy? The answer will be a little clearer in 2015 – a crucial year for Modi to establish whether he is all talk or also action.

The other challenge is keeping the larger “Sangh Parivar” or family of various Hindu organizations in check so their provocations don’t unleash communal violence. That could wreck Modi’s plans and the India story. It is unclear how he will deal with these groups. There are enough disturbing signs for him to act sooner rather than later.

Why couldn’t Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit in India be a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations?

The Pakistan relationship is extremely complex and can’t be explained in quick, clever formulations. The first thing to understand is that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif does not control Pakistan’s foreign policy on India, China, Afghanistan and the United States: The Pakistan military does. Every time a civilian leader has tried to improve relations with India, he has been given a stern warning.

President Asif Ali Zardari was stopped dead in his tracks with the 2008 Mumbai attacks. He had great plans to make peace. Over the last year Nawaz Sharif has been hemmed in by the military in all sorts of ways. The protests by Imran Khan and assorted rent-a-mullah were not entirely spontaneous. Sharif wanted to open trade with India but all reports say that the military has not given its OK. Even though Nawaz Sharif won a mandate, the military made sure he is incapacitated.

The India-Pakistan foreign secretary talks were cancelled for obvious reasons. The Pakistan foreign office chose to deliberately provoke India by going and meeting Kashmiri separatists ahead of the talks. Islamabad had been specifically requested not to take that step by New Delhi. The warning was ignored and India cancelled the talks. They read Modi wrong.

There is also an increasing sense in India that Pakistan’s civilian leaders and bureaucracy do not have any decision-making powers so what’s the point? When Pakistan gets serious about ending terrorism and acting against those who preach hatred against India openly such as LeT leader Hafiz Saeed, India will be ready to talk. The mastermind of the Mumbai attack is close to being released. The message to India from the military-ISI is the same it has always been – we will bleed you with a thousand cuts.

The big difference from 20 years ago when Pakistan embarked on a clear plan to use jihadists as instruments of state policy is this – the rest of the world now has no illusions about Pakistan. The Americans hold their noses to deal with the Pakistan military but it is not like in the days of Eisenhower and Nixon when nothing the military did was wrong or excessive.

Most major terrorist attacks, including 9/11, have a Pakistan connection. The top terrorist leaders (Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Hafiz Saeed) were and are living in Pakistan. India is no longer the lone voice on how Pakistan’s self-destructive policies of nurturing extremists are a source of instability in the world and for the region.

In the near future, does the government have the plan to talk with Pakistan?

If there is an opening, I am sure India would rise to the occasion. But the ball is in Pakistan’s court. After the Peshawar attack, in which 131 children were butchered by the Taliban, the hope is that Pakistan’s military and ISI will finally wake up to the threat that can gobble up the whole country. But no one is holding their breath. The kind of resolve needed to start cleaning up is not yet evident.

What are your thoughts on present India-Pakistan relations?

If the Pakistan military were not the dominant player, we would have been friends all along. Indians and Pakistanis want to be friends for the most part but the Pakistan military’s ideology – on which several new books have shed light – sees India as its “permanent enemy.” This prevents any real rapprochement. Pakistan’s civilian leaders have no real power or control over foreign policy, which ultimately makes talking to them a feel-good exercise. As an Indian I feel we should always talk, keep the door open, and help the liberal and progressive voices in Pakistan.

The radicalization of the average Pakistani is worrisome. When Hafiz Saeed gathers thousands of men in Lahore for a hate-fest, it tells you something. Pakistani textbooks teach hate towards India from the beginning, which sets in place a narrative that suits only the army, not the people.

Yet, India’s civil society and Pakistan’s liberals – the few who are still left in the country – keep bravely working towards peace. The Indian government – both Manmohan Singh and Modi – offered to sell electricity to Pakistan but there was no response. Nawaz Sharif wanted to go ahead but Raheel Sharif didn’t. When the army calls the shots, the civilians can’t really improve things.

India gave Pakistan the most favored nation status (MFN) required under the WTO years ago but Pakistan has been mulling over returning the favor for at least three years. Nawaz Sharif was ready but he was blocked by the military. So who doesn’t want peace in the neighborhood? Pakistan even blocks India transit rights to deliver food and other humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.

Despite sharing cultural, linguistic, geographic and economic links, the Pakistan-India relationship has been plagued by hostility. Why?

That would require a book to answer. But in short, Pakistan was born as the “un-India” and has been wandering around trying to find a suitable identity. It deliberately moved away from its South Asian roots and tried to be Arab. Today it is neither. It was a U.S. ally but acted against U.S. interests. It takes American money but hates America. Pakistan’s establishment has always been too busy exploiting the country’s geographical advantage – whether during the Cold War or after – that it forgot about building the country for the people.

Indians and Pakistanis share cultural and linguistic ties but while India for the most part embraces its past, which includes the Mughal rule, Pakistan officially shuns any association with the Indian civilization. It skips history to fit a convoluted, distorted and ultimately harmful narrative. Over the last two decades, Sufi Islam – a common bond – has been under attack in Pakistan with Sufi shrines being destroyed while Wahabism has spread. Indian Muslims by and large still practice a more moderate Islam.

We may watch the same Bollywood movies and Pakistanis may love Indian films but so long as an average Pakistani child is taught that India is the enemy, nothing can really change. We can make an uneasy peace but a lot will have to change for real peace.

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