Imran Khan has been accused of bowing to religious extremists in Pakistan. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi
Imran Khan could well return to power in Pakistan, and the US must be prepared to deal with him. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

After Pakistan’s National Assembly took oath on Monday, senator Rehman Malik, a senior leader of the self-avowed secular Pakistan People’s Party addressed the media to urge unity between the Parliamentarians. “We need to unite against what [Narendra] Modi – who was a terrorist until recently – is doing. He has set up Daesh [ISIS] in Afghanistan, and look what he’s doing in Balochistan,” Malik said.

Malik’s words echo the pre-election mudslinging where the Indian Prime Minister was targeted by all parties contesting the elections.

The most popular among the allegations was Modi ka yaar (Modi’s friend) which had become a popular buzzword used most commonly against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, owing to his overtures towards India and Modi’s stopover in Lahore in December 2015, where the Indian premier attended the wedding of Sharif’s granddaughter.

The slur Modi ka yaar was used frequently against Sharif by Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf  (PTI) will form the federal government after winning the general elections last month, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whose PPP will lead the Sindh provincial government.

Even so, while Nawaz Sharif was being targeted as a friend of Modi’s, his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, now the President of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) also unleashed fire against the Indian Prime Minister in the lead up to the elections, calling him “murderer of thousands of Muslims in India” and vowed to “leave India behind” if his party is elected to power.

While anti-India rhetoric was popular in election rallies, observers on both sides of the Indo-Pak border noted it was mostly directed towards  Modi. “It is important to note that Modi ka yaar is not the same as India ka yaar (Friend of India). This has to be seen in the light of Modi being a hardline Hindu nationalist leader,” says Indian journalist, Shivam Vij, a columnist for The Print.  “The statement Modi ka yaar may then be more about Nawaz Sharif than about Modi, much less India,” he adds.

“The irony here is that during Nawaz Sharif’s rule, anti-India terror groups flourished in his bastion the state of Punjab and his stance on India, as recently as 2016, was highly antagonistic especially when he supported Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani at the United Nations.”

A senior PML-N leader said that while it’s ‘normal’ for all political parties to exhibit anti-Indianism during the election campaign, this year Modi was specifically mentioned because he is an ‘obvious target.’

“Considering the military establishment had orchestrated allegations of treason against Nawaz Sharif, which were echoed through the religious parties that they created to dent our vote bank as well, it was obviously important for us to address those allegations,” he said. “Considering that Modi is such a villainous figure in Pakistan, and also because his name was used to taunt Nawaz Sharif, he was the obvious target.”

Daily Times editor, and author of Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts, Raza Rumi says while the anti-India rhetoric was minimal in the 2013 election, it increased this year. “Most political parties use it to outdo each other in terms of proving their nationalist credentials. The Modi ka yaar slogan was basically an instrument to declare that in addition to Nawaz Sharif being ‘corrupt,’ he was also a security risk. The rhetoric is a mirror image of what happens in India during elections,” he says.

Upmita Vajpai, a special correspondent at the Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar agrees, that pre-election rhetoric in Pakistan is similar to India. “Being the closest neighbors, there is rarely a day in Indian politics when we don’t see anti-Pakistan [allegations] being used as a tool by either party. ‘Send them to Pakistan’ is a very common phrase,” she says. “It was the perception here in India that Imran Khan was trying to copy Modi in his style of campaigning. Whereas there is another perception that Modi was taking initiatives to pamper Pakistan by becoming a friend of Nawaz (Sharif).”

Analysts argue that as long as hyper-nationalism prevails in the two South Asian countries, taking pre-election jibes against one another would continue. In Pakistan’s case, it is the Army’s hegemony over the narrative that critics believe needs to be addressed.

“Pakistani national identity and nationalism, as championed by the security establishment and reflected in the educational curriculum, portrays India as the ‘other’ and an existential threat to Pakistan. Until and unless this changes, anti-Indianism will be used not only in election campaigns but also to justify the establishment’s policies,” says Husain Haqqani, former ambassador to the US and author of India Vs Pakistan: Why Can’t We Just be Friends?  “Hopefully the appeal of such slogans will diminish once Pakistanis realize the real problems of the country and the price Pakistan pays for extremist rhetoric.”

Harilal Rajagopal, an opinion editor at Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi, says that the military’s control over Pakistan is the primary concern in India. “Most of us here are aware that Pakistani politicians and military can’t go forward without keeping an Indian agenda for their political and other motives. They are emotionally blackmailing the public to veil the real problems they are enduring,” he says. “What India needs is a stable democratic government in Pakistan for the sake of the subcontinent.”

Senior journalist and activist Beena Sarwar, who is the Pakistan editor at Aman Ki Asha, a platform for promoting peace between Pakistan and India, believes the politicians’ taunts across the border do not reflect the opinion of the masses. “Any sensible person knows that peace between India and Pakistan is essential for prosperity in the region. I believe these taunts don’t reflect public sentiment but are flung about to try and put political opponents on the defensive on either side,” she says. “In Pakistan, there is a political consensus on this. Even in India, the ordinary person is more concerned about making ends meet and living a decent life than about relations with Pakistan.”

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