What does the Modi election mean for India–Pakistan relations?
22 May 2014|

India's PM-elect Narendra Modi addresses a victory rally in Ahmedabad on 21 May 2014.The massive landslide victory of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s recent parliamentary election will have been received with mixed feelings in neighbouring Pakistan. Still, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was one of the first heads of state to call Modi to congratulate him on his election victory.

Reportedly, Sharif stressed his country’s desire for a ‘new beginning’ and his desire to resume the normalisation process with India. In that spirit, he extended an invitation to Modi to visit Pakistan. But that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

And although it’s clearly too early to be definitive as to the specifics of what the bilateral relationship will look like, one can nevertheless outline the broad contours of what to expect.

The last time the BJP was in power in India, bilateral relations were on the whole relatively good—at least at the beginning. Then BJP Prime Minister Bihari Vajpayee travelled by bus to Lahore in 1999. That was the beginning of the cross-border bus service. Pakistanis remember those days with fondness. Nawaz Sharif was then Pakistan’s prime minister for the second time.

Unfortunately, it was also under PM Sharif’s watch that the Kargil armed confrontation in Kashmir took place. It was only thanks to heavy American pressure that the crisis didn’t lead to a full-blown war between the two nuclear-armed states. And while PM Sharif insisted that the Kargil military adventure was one concocted by General Musharraf, then chief of army, without his knowledge, the Indians still felt betrayed by that turn of events.

Needless to say, PM Sharif will want to leave the Kargil episode behind him and move things forward. He’s keen to resume a comprehensive dialogue with India and have an enhanced relationship with India. That’s not a new policy position—Sharif stressed this point many times during his election campaign last year. But a Modi government is unlikely to move quickly on that front.

So we can’t expect any radical change in India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan. And certainly there’ll be no significant change in its attitude towards Pakistan as long as Islamabad continues to harbour Hafeez Saeed, the mastermind of the Pakistan-based Laskar-e-Taiba, which conducted the terrorist attack in Mumbai in November 2008.

Modi and his party have made it clear that for any ‘constructive engagement’, Pakistan would need to act against India-specific terror groups. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had made it a condition to visit Pakistan.

Although there appears to be some change in attitude among Pakistani officials—military and civilian—towards the use of terrorist groups to advance Islamabad’s foreign policy objectives, handing Saeed over to India is simply not going to happen.

Unfortunately, a recent statement by General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan Chief of Army Staff, won’t help matters either. On 1 May General Sharif (no relation to PM Sharif) referred to Kashmir as the ‘jugular vein of Pakistan which should be resolved in accordance with the wishes and aspirations of Kashmiris and in line with UNSC resolutions for lasting peace in the region’. That too won’t happen.

What’s more within the realm of possibility is another Mumbai-type attack from a Pakistan-based terrorist organisation. There are a number of such outfits that would be more than happy to derail any possibility of an improvement in relations between the two nuclear-armed states.

One shouldn’t forget that a suicide squad from the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad attacked India’s Parliament House in December 2001, which led to India putting its troops on high mobilisation for six months.

If a terrorist attack did occur—the third on Indian soil—it’s unlikely Modi would be as tolerant in his response as his predecessor had been. He would be under intense domestic pressure to respond vigorously and harshly.

And although the BJP’s election manifesto suggested India could drop its No First Use nuclear doctrine were it to win office, according to credible Indian sources here in Washington, that option is off the table in New Delhi. That may be true, but Islamabad will still be more edgy about the degree of uncertainty that has been brought into the nuclear equation on the sub-continent.

In any case, the ball is definitely in Pakistan’s court in trying to move the bilateral relationship forward. One step Islamabad could take that would demonstrate its good faith would be to grant India non-discriminatory market access, something India accorded to Pakistan in 1996. The lifting of trade restrictions would help increase the meagre annual bilateral trade of $3 billion and assist in lifting millions out of poverty on both sides of the border.

Doing that would require convincing many vested interests in Pakistan, including in particular the military, that such a step would be a good thing for the country. And that may well be the toughest battle ahead for the Sharif government.

Claude Rakisits is director at PoliTact, a Washington D.C.-based consultancy firm, and honorary associate professor in strategic studies at Deakin University. Image courtesy of Flickr user Narendra Modi.