Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unconventional challenge to Pakistan—“I want to say that India is ready for a war… India is ready for a war on poverty"—should make the South Asian region, home to some of the poorest people on the planet, sit up in fright. Spring up actually.
This is what he said, “Let both countries fight to see who would eradicate poverty first… I want to tell the youth of Pakistan, let’s have a war on ending unemployment… I want to call out to the children in Pakistan, let’s declare war on illiteracy. Let’s see who wins. Let’s declare war on infant mortality and maternal deaths."
Those remarks came in a speech that otherwise was full of sabre-rattling, anti-Pakistan tongue-lashing—only to be expected from after a suicide attack by terrorists killed 18 Indian soldiers and wounded 18 more in Jammu and Kashmir on 18 September.
Modi, interestingly and perhaps for the first time for an Indian leader, drew a strong distinction between Pakistani governments and its people, making clear that he was against the Pakistani government, not its people.
It ties in nicely with the “war against poverty" part of the speech—far more thought-through an approach than what comes out in the one-liner that the Indian foreign ministry threw at the UN, about Pakistan hosting the “Ivy League of terrorism".
The best speeches on foreign policy are never about sound bytes, especially not angry ones. If you are a Hugo Chavez, you can just about get away with telling the world “the man I call the devil came here talking as if he owned the world".
But that’s not India, that’s Latin America with its own tragic history of oppression, Catholicism and poetry. If you are angry and are writing a speech, far better to aspire to something with the gravitas of “Axis of Evil".
That’s why Modi’s speech in Kozhikode stood out. It helped that he was speaking in a part of South Asia that’s probably more literate, where mere jaw-jaw would have put his audience off.
The sentiment Modi sought to espouse is: “Fellow Pakistani neighbours, your leaders have made terrorism a policy of statecraft. And it’s not doing you lot any good, is it? Your nation has long teetered on the edge of ‘failed nation’ status (not something the rest of the world aspires to, you understand), while your governments and leaders (plus the intelligence agency and Army) continue to obsess about Kashmir. It’s not going to happen, fellows. So, rather than play their game, why don’t you stand up to them and ask them to stop supporting terrorists and do something about—oh, where to start—shall we say poverty, illiteracy and infant mortality. That way, your leaders will actually do something for you, you know, you and your family, too, for a change."
What he actually said was this: “Rulers of Pakistan listen… India has been successful in isolating you. We will force you to be left alone in the world. That day is not far when the people of Pakistan will take to the streets to fight against the rulers and fight terrorism."
It was a clever speech: evil governments, hand-in-glove with terrorists, versus the good people of Pakistan, particularly the youth and children, fed up of their rulers, a land ripe for revolution. I don’t know if it crossed any red lines of diplomacy, but tough if it did—the Indian PM’s gone and said it, and that’s pretty much that.
Strangely, in talking about poverty in the developed state of Kerala, Modi articulated what every South Asian liberal has long told Indians and Pakistanis: why do you fight and bicker over territory with your massive armies when you have so much to do at home to fight poverty?
Pakistani and Indian liberals too have long claimed that the bitter rivalry espoused by the leaders of the two nations rooted in religious partition is phony, aimed at diverting public attention from their failure—or, worse, reluctance—to end the poverty at their doorsteps.
It is nothing short of ending this corrosive narrative that Modi has set out to challenge.
When stacked up against each other, there is no doubt that India has made much greater and more rapid strides in reducing poverty and hunger. By the three yardsticks that Modi called out—poverty, illiteracy and infant mortality—India has done better than its northern neighbour. Not as well as it could have for a nation aspiring to great heights, but still moderately better.
As a nation, we in India ought to have the courage to hold up Modi’s remarks about the South Asian challenge as a mirror to ourselves—after all, a fight involves two sides, and he’s gone and named us in it. Read along with India’s threats to turn off the Indus river water tap—a terrifying version of scorched earth (as if Pakistan could become any more of a dystopia than it already is)—strategic experts tell us that India is playing good cop, bad cop.
But strategic experts tend to be a step behind times, cynically invoking the fear of the unknown to unleash our own versions of the fear of the unknown, rolling and pushing the wheel of South Asian poverty.
If we in India and Pakistan are serious about this fight to smash poverty, illiteracy and hunger, then the two countries must unleash the power of their civilian populations, their civil societies—that is the logical conclusion to be drawn from Modi’s speech, which is a direct appeal to the people of a feudal nation, issued over the heads of their rulers. In this, both nations will go against the worst instincts of their leaders, who must know that ending poverty cannot be accomplished without that flip side of the coin of democracy—the civil society.
Modi has called out to end the hesitancy of subcontinental rulers. So, let it be a fight to the finish then—without the threats or weapons for once. What have we got to lose, but our fears of each other.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1