India-Pakistan Detente Requires More Than Modi's New Power

  • Signs of cooperation but chances of breakthrough low: analysts
  • India likely to narrow its focus to deepening U.S., Japan ties

A landslide election victory and a more conciliatory army chief may not be enough to push nuclear-armed enemies India and Pakistan toward renewed talks, even as small signs of cooperation over sensitive security issues emerge.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party swept to a majority in India’s most populous and important state on March 11. The election makes Modi the most powerful Indian politician in three decades and opens an opportunity to forge a bold new Pakistan policy, even though he lacks majority in the upper house of parliament. 

Islamabad has recently shown some signs of cooperation and has a new army chief who analysts like the Eurasia Group’s Sasha Riser-Kositsky view as uninterested in meddling in politics. 

Complicating an already fractious relationship, Pakistan is receiving $55 billion in investment from China for a vast infrastructure corridor that stretches through the disputed region of Kashmir at a time when tensions are simmering between India and China over Beijing’s push into the contested territory. Meanwhile, earlier Indian diplomatic outreach efforts to its neighbor have been stymied by what New Delhi said are cross-border attacks from Pakistan. 

It is unlikely Modi will wager his new-found political strength by reaching out to Islamabad and risking rejection -- or worse -- ahead of India’s next national election in 2019. Some analysts suggest his poll win may even validate India’s harder line on Pakistan.

“The approach to Pakistan will continue to be tough, since the terrorism issue agitates the public sentiment deeply, and there has been little or no give from Pakistan,” said Nirupama Rao, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to the U.S. and China. “There is really no public support for dialogue with Pakistan. The field lies fallow.”

‘Riding High’

With his political strength at an all-time high, Modi “can be even more risky” with an ambitious Pakistan policy, said Harsh Pant, an international relations professor at King’s College London. However, India’s recent tough approach to Pakistan -- including border attacks in September and attempts at diplomatic isolation -- seems to be working, he added.

“He’s riding high,” Pant said. “What’s the point of taking any risks and marring his chances in 2019?”

Read more: Pakistan Mixes Fragile State With Modernizing Society: QuickTake

The Uttar Pradesh election, in which Modi’s BJP won 312 seats in the 403-seat assembly, showed there was popular support for the September military action, junior minister for home affairs, Hansraj Ahjir said. “As long as there is cease-fire violation there is no need to talk to Pakistan.”

Outreach

There still could be some outreach. India has toned down its threat to review or withdraw from the Indus Waters Treaty that governs rivers flowing from India to Pakistan in September. Officials from both countries will meet in Lahore later this month. 

Read more: Modi Lays Groundwork For Water War in Battle With Rival Pakistan

Also, in late January, in a move seen as an attempt to placate the U.S., Pakistan put Hafiz Saeed, the suspected planner of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, under house arrest in Lahore.

Sameer Patil, who served in the prime minister’s national security council secretariat under the previous Congress government, said Modi could renew low-level talks before dispatching senior officials. “Every Indian prime minister has some kind of yearning to do something with Pakistan,” he said.

China Support

Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to the U.S., said he doubts Modi will attempt any grand bargain. 

China’s is lending diplomatic and economic support to Pakistan, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, he said. “I don’t see the Chinese backing down on this and I can’t see the Chinese advising Pakistan to talk with India,” Mansingh said.

“Every Indian prime minister has tried to make it a legacy issue and none have succeed,” he said.

‘Once Bitten, Twice Shy’

Despite being South Asia’s second largest economy, Pakistan is ranked below Ghana as India’s 47th largest trading partner, with total trade of just $2.1 billion. Closer relations would benefit both: The World Bank estimates India-Pakistan trade could jump as high as $20 billion.

Modi has tried to ease tensions. He invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration in 2014 and made a surprise stopover to see his counterpart in Lahore in December 2015. Soon after, gunmen attacked an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot in Punjab state.

“He will be governed by the adage once bitten twice shy” even if the new army chief seems more restrained than his predecessor, said G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan.

Pakistan, which has been ruled by the military for a large part its history since independence in 1947, has often said it is open to talks. 

“We want talks and a peaceful neighbor with improved relations and a peaceful settlement of all issues including Kashmir,” Musadiq Malik, a spokesman for Sharif, said by phone. “We never said no to talks.”

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S., said the election strengthened Modi’s position but has not changed the “fundamental dynamic” of bilateral relations.

“Modi is likely to think that focusing on economic initiatives and expanding ties with the U.S. and Japan might bring greater success sooner than pursuing elusive normalization with Pakistan,” Haqqani said. “Modi would probably wait for his second term before addressing peacemaking with Pakistan again.”

— With assistance by Abhijit Roy Chowdhury

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