After writing on the Sangh Parivar, why have you taken this shift in subject matter to Pakistan? Is it because it is the "other" to the Hindutva discourse?
The shift to Pakistan for me is not that recent. I did a book on Pakistan in 1999, at that time, I wanted to see why these two countries with the same historical roots diverged after partition. We can control the historical variable, but chart a different trajectory. Then I realised that they do not, in fact, have the same history. The Punjab, the North West Frontier Province, did not experience the kind of democratisation that the rest of India had during the Raj, I include Bengal in the rest of India, by the way. On the other hand, there are converging dynamics. For instance, in many ways the politics at the local levels was almost the same, at least till the rise of Islamism in the 1980s in Pakistan and the rise of the OBCs in India in the 1990s. Biradaris politics was very similar to the clientelism brand of the « Congress system ». There are other affinities. For instance there are resilient democrats in Pakistan.
The new government in India has engaged with almost all SAARC countries, visiting most of them in his first year, but has scrupulously avoided Pakistan. Almost as if he wants to "right size" Pakistan vis a vis other countries. What is your take?
The idea that you not only dehyphenate yourself from Pakistan but also somewhat ignore it, is not new. But if that is dangerous. You cannot ignore a neighbour of that size, with that kind of military capability, with a history of conflict and this connection to China. To do so would also be dangerous because if you ignore Pakistan, it will make sure you pay attention to it. So there is no reason why India could not pursue the kind of engagement that previous Prime Ministers, including A. B. Vajpayee, have tried and trade and business can be used as one of the entry points. Now on the Pakistani side, the army would be not only suspicious but also happy to derail a process of rapprochement. But India needs to try again and again if only to make sure that Pakistanis felt considered. A dismissive attitude would be counter productive.
You have talked about three contradictions within the Idea of Pakistan, one is about the imposition of a unitary nationstate using Urdu as a language, the democrats versus authoritarians, and the third between a monolithic conception of Islam and the syncretic Islam of South Asia. While you've said that all three haven't been able to bring down the country, which is the dominant contradiction?
The most dangerous contradiction is the question on which kind of Islam will prevail. Not only because you have the old tension between those who are from "Muslimhood", a la Jinnah as opposed to fundamentalists, but also because of the increased conflict between Shias and Sunnis. This is posing an existential threat to Pakistan, making it the virtual battleground for a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
This time though Pakistan has refused to pledge ground troops to Saudi Arabia's offensive in Yemen.
Yes, that's probably because to take the Saudi side would have exacerbated sectarianism, but also because of the Army which thought that this war was badly thought out tactically and that the military was already over stretched. They have soldiers in North Waziristan, Balochistan and they don't want to go into another war. How long they can withstand Saudi pressure if Riyad critically needs Pakistan to balance Iran? It is difficult to say but if Pakistan gives in to pressure from Saudis it will have societal implications too, as the Saudi version of Islam is against the south Asian traditions.
In this context don't you think that President Obama's engagement with Iran is a hopeful thing?
Yes and no. If Obama is engaging Iran at any cost to put his name down in history books with a deal, and if this deal allows Iran to become nuclear, the repercussions for the region will be overwhelming. You can imagine what the Saudis will do. In the 1970s Zulfikar Bhutto said "we may eat grass, but we will get the bomb", well the Saudis will not need to eat grass to get the bomb probably.
It's been commonly held that only the Pakistan Army and the BJP government in Delhi which can broker peace between the two countries. Do you agree?
I agree with this paradox. It is very difficult for a civilian government, fully in control (by the way I don't think that will ever happen) in Pakistan, and a Congress or a Third Front government, like under Gujral to broker peace, as you end up looking weak and the BJP gets after you as the Army does in Pakistan. So it's a bit like the French decolonisation, only De Gaulle could do it. If the Left had tried to do it, the nationalists would have been after them. But when a nationalistic government does it....
What do you think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last one year, have there been any surprises for you?
There's been somewhat an evolution. During the first few months of the new dispensation, there's been the Love Jihad and Ghar Vapsi campaigns, riots in Delhi, attacks on Christian churches and religious figures... In the last few months we haven't heard anything of the sort. But can the BJP dilute its ideology further? Can the RSS accept a full BJP term without any of their core issues being addressed? If that happens, it will be an interesting landmark in India.