Elections in the largest democracy of the world are a distant and hardly audible soundbeat for its Western neighbour Pakistan. There is a relatively mute response to the cacophony of political slogans, ideological discourses and contradictory positions on public policy. All this points to gross reductionism that has traditionally barred Pakistanis from understanding the patterns of conflict in India based on caste, class, region, language, religion, ethnicity and tribe. People of Pakistan typically anthropomorphize the state of India as a bellicose Hindu country. It is a classical state-centered — as opposed to society-centered — approach to the world beyond the national borders. Most ironically, the 2013 elections in Pakistan, like the previous exercises in mass polling in the country, share with the 2014 elections in India, the defining variables such as: factionalism, coalition politics, rampant cynicism about corruption and regionalization of politics. The Pakistani voter is closer to the Indian voter than any other voter in the world in terms of polling on the basis of caste or caste-like system of biradri, tribe, shifting factional loyalties as well as religious and ethnic identities as the sources of intense electoral mobilization.
The only visible presence of the Indian elections in Pakistan is in the print and electronic media. The Urdu press has typically carried few analyses and only marginal coverage of the election news. Only the English press – the dailies Dawn, Express Tribune and The News, the leading weekly The Friday Times, and the monthly The Herald produced occasional write-ups and even editorials. Most surprisingly, the cable TV channels covered very little discussion about the electoral dynamics of India. It is true that the general apathy towards internal politics of India has played a great role in bypassing the coverage of the greatest global event bringing the state and society into a mode of interaction through elections. However, the media, political parties and the Nawaz Sharif government have been grossly pre-occupied with domestic issues such as the trial of ex-President Musharraf that cast a shadow on civil-military relations and the issue of negotiations with the Taliban that reflects a deep division across the society and the polity.
However, one did hear about the Indian elections in the newspaper offices, classrooms, corridors of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Bar rooms and TV lounges in millions of households, though somewhat sporadically and cynically. Narendra Modi tops the profile of Indian elections as a symbol of awe and fear in the context of the return of Hindutva to the centre stage of Indian politics, along with his occasional vitriolic against the alleged pro-Pakistan elements in the body politic that carries the message of India’s march to the right. At the same time, the fear of Modi is not accompanied by any real sense of loss of an opportunity in the outgoing Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This is largely due to the incapacity or unwillingness of the India watchers in Pakistan to distinguish between various contenders for power in terms of a qualitative policy difference vis-à-vis Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the general public in Pakistan has no real favourites in the Indian elections despite a sense of diffuse anguish towards the BJP.
A closely related concern is about Indian Muslims who are perceived to be hapless victims of the political current moving in Modi’s way. Imam Shahabuddin’s declaration that Muslims of India should vote for the Congress came too late in the day, and carried no real game-changing prospects wherever it was taken seriously. For Pakistanis, Modi is bad news, in terms of both bilateral relations and Hindu-Muslim relations at home. The only consolation is that Modi has fielded himself as a developmentalist and not as an assertive Hindutva candidate, whatever it means eventually for public policy after the formation of government in Delhi. However, the fact that there is no real appreciation of the Indian electoral landscape in Pakistan, the opinion about contestants and voters remains holistic and vague. One can only point to the patchy and hazy profile of what is perceived to be a remote political phenomenon that involves a huge number of potential voters surpassing the colossal figure of 800 million. One finds no serious analyses of opinion polls about the voter turnout or party positions. The interest in Indian elections is oriented towards the result rather than the process. One can argue that commentators churn out ideas without the benefit of a calculus judging the potential of a majority or a plurality for policy towards Pakistan.
Any analyses of electoral trends in the context of class orientation, electoral performance of ethno-regional parties, corruption-accountability nexus, ethnic movements in north-east India, women’s issues or representation of minorities in the state, i.e. issues conceived and projected in the domestic context of India are not visible on the horizon of Pakistani commentators nor the articulate sections of the public in general. Only the newly billed ‘third party option’ in the form of Kejeriwal’s anti-corruption platform Aam Admi Party (AAP) elicited some positive remarks in the context of Pakistan’s own third party syndrome represented by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik Insaaf (PTI). However, the relatively elitist structure of the PTI and its failure to assume the character of a grassroots movement did not take the analogy too far. At the other end, old references to the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya and the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat have been scarce, probably because history has been overtaken by more pressing problems at hand in both countries. The little attention paid to the issue of Kashmir in the coverage of Indian elections in Pakistan poses the question whether Kashmir is receding from the political imagination of people on this side of the border. One cannot explain the apathy of Pakistanis towards the Indian elections only with reference to hostility between the two countries. Rather, one should point to the insularity of vision that has turned Pakistanis introverts. For example, there has not been a visible trend of covering the recent elections in Afghanistan.
Professor Mohammad Waseem is a Professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. He has published several monographs and articles on elections and understandings of democracy in Pakistan.