Narendra Modi’s impromptu stopover in Pakistan on Christmas day seems a startling self-contradiction. Modi, like his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has drawn much of his popular appeal and ideological energy from an explicitly anti-Pakistan attitude.

As the main opposition party during the previous decade, the BJP effectively prevented the previous Indian government from normalizing relations with Pakistan. In 2013, after the Pakistani military beheaded an Indian soldier, Sushma Swaraj, a senior BJP leader and now Modi’s foreign minister, said that India should avenge him by securing 10 Pakistani heads.

India’s aspirations

In recent months, the president of the BJP declared that a victory for Modi’s political opposition is a victory for Pakistan, and Modi’s allies have routinely urged the critics of rising bigotry in India to move to Pakistan. For most of this year, Modi’s government rudely spurned substantive talks with Pakistan.

Suddenly, however, Modi is assuming the mantle of a statesman, reaching out to the enemy. Like Richard Nixon, who defied his own long record of hard-line anti-Communism by meeting Mao Zedong, Modi seems to want to open the door that he helped shut.

Certainly, Modi, with his jaunt to Lahore, has at last achieved more uniformly upbeat headlines for himself in the international media. Many people are eager to believe that an old and destructive antagonism is about to be defused. But believing that Modi’s Christmas mission will produce a great and enduring bonanza, including his own change of heart, may be a bit like believing in Santa Claus.

Modi’s histrionic visit to Nepal last year was likewise hailed by international relations experts as inaugurating a new chapter in India’s relations with its neighbours. However, in recent months, an unofficial Indian embargo—an attempt to force Nepal to change its constitution—has brought the Nepalese economy to its knees, sparking widespread hatred of Modi and India in Nepal.

The key to Modi’s chameleon-like behaviour lies in the realization that he is, as his own senior colleague, L.K. Advani, pointed out, a “brilliant and efficient events manager." Modi rose fast in the staid world of Indian politics partly because he was the first to recognize the imperative of inserting himself into 24-hour news cycles, of manipulating social media and hosting massive spectacles to the impress the rich, the powerful and the influential.

His year-and-a-half in India’s highest office has been chiefly distinguished by a series of photo-ops with world leaders and stirring oratory in stadiums packed with tens of thousands of ecstatic non-resident Indians in the UK, the US and Australia. Grand proclamations and promises—from International Day for Yoga to Digital India—reveal little of substance on close examination.

If Modi is now extending his permanent public relations campaign to Pakistan, it is because he is now a politician with rapidly diminishing capital. He is very far from fulfilling his most potent electoral promise, of creating jobs for the millions of young Indians entering the work force every year. He suffered humiliating defeats in state elections in Delhi and Bihar. His apparent indifference to hate speech by his party colleagues, and his silence over the lynching of Muslims, has provoked unprecedented protests from the Indian intelligentsia and has invited international scrutiny.

As so often in his career, Modi is trying to change adverse headlines and announce a rousing new narrative. But even if you believe that he is sincerely determined this time to improve relations between India and Pakistan, it is prudent to understand how they could remain hostage to hardliners on both sides.

Pakistan’s turmoil

Terrorist atrocities, such as the Taliban’s attack on a school in Peshawar last winter, may have forced the Pakistani security establishment to examine its addiction to proxy militant groups. But there are no signs that it is ready to abandon its fundamental hostility to India. The Hindu nationalists have never made any secret of wanting to subordinate the Muslim population of South Asia. Last week, Ram Madhav, a prominent ideologue and Modi’s ambassador-at-large, aired the old Hindu-supremacist fantasy of an undivided India that includes Pakistan and Bangladesh.

You can only hope that the India-Pakistan relationship will be retrieved one day from the clutches of fanatics. But its recent history of abruptly raised and shattered hopes doesn’t inspire much optimism in the short term. As always, there is a chance that elements in Pakistan determined to thwart detente with India will launch a terrorist attack—just as Modi struggles to rebuild his political capital in important state elections.

His economic promises unfulfilled, Modi is unlikely to stray far from his familiar and ideologically congenial position; he may even raise the rhetorical ante in case the treacherous neighbour strikes again. Those who hail Modi’s uplifting new narrative will do better to prepare themselves for its depressing sequel. Bloomberg

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