Karachi: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s third term in office was meant to be the golden era of Pakistan-India relations, an opportunity to finish what he started with Atal Behari Vajpayee in the 1990s. But prospects for bilateral bonding looked increasingly dim last week.
On this side of the border, Mr Sharif dropped the idea of granting India Most Favou-red Nation status, conceding he had failed to drum up consensus (likely among the security establishment). And on that side, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime minis-terial candidate, Narendra Modi, decided to take his first pot shots at electoral rival Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party by labelling him a Pakistani agent, one of the three kinds of “AKs” popular in Pakistan. (The others are AK-47s and A.K. Antony, the defence minister who said men dressed in Pakistan Army uniforms — as distinct from Pakistani soldiers — were responsible for killing five Indian troops last year.)
Pakistan-bashing is an old trick used by Indian politicians in campaign mode, and few expect the strident rhetoric to survive the government transition. But the fact that Mr Modi’s default stance is anti-Pakistan raises worrying questions about the fate of Pakistan-India ties, especially as Mr Modi looks increasingly well placed in India’s electoral race. However, it is far from certain that Mr Modi will be India’s next Prime Minister; a strong BJP may yet have to form a coalition with partners who could reject his prime ministership.
Mr Modi is known for anti-Pakistan rhetoric, which he relied on to bolster his Hindutva credentials ahead of being nominated by the BJP.
And of course there’s the matter of his alleged role in the horrifying communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. But whether this troubling track record will translate into an aggressive posture towards Islamabad is un-clear. In dealing with Pakistan, Mr Modi will be torn between a desire to pursue his economic agenda and a need to maintain his reputation as a man of action.
To be the “CEO” that India is supposedly hankering for, Mr Modi will have to improve trade relations with Pakistan. Bilateral trade stood at $2.6 billion in 2012-13 but could amount to 10 times as much if relations are normalised.
Moreover, strong ties with Pakistan are a prerequisite for India to gain access to markets and mineral and energy resources in Afgha-nistan, Iran and Central Asia. But as strongman du jour, Mr Modi will struggle to make overtures towards Pakistan at the same time that Islamabad is negotiating peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban.
Concerns about India being impacted by militancy stemming from Pakistan ride high and recent incidents — clashes along the Line of Control earlier this year and recent arrests of members of the Indian Mujahideen, one of whom is reported to be a Pakistani national — are unlikely to make Mr Modi amenable to seeming soft or indecisive on the issue of terrorism. Indeed, in comments about Pakistan during his first public rally as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Mr Modi focused on the fact that the international community had not been sufficiently critical of terrorism emanating from Pakistan and urged Islamabad to eliminate poverty to prevent the country from being a breeding ground for militancy.
Much of how Mr Modi deals with Pakistan — if he becomes India’s next Prime Minister — will depend on how the BJP fares in the election, whether it has coalition partners, and if it chooses to prioritise economic issues or its traditional Hindu-right ideology. Mr Modi’s desire — or reluctance — to fashion himself as a legatee of Mr Vajpayee will also matter: he might take advantage of the fact that the Right-wing BJP is in no danger of being attacked from the right for engaging Pakistan (there are even some who think Mr Modi might use a soft line on Pakistan as a way to erase lingering questions about his role in Gujarat and stance towards India’s Muslim community).
It’s too soon to tell (even though polling kicks off a week from today), particularly since the BJP has yet to release a manifesto. What is clear is that Pakistanis will continue to distrust Mr Modi no matter what. This will reduce public and political support for Mr Sharif’s pro-India stance, especially at a time when emboldened militant groups will use Mr Modi’s prime ministership to escalate anti-India, anti-Hindu rhetoric, and discredit elected politicians who call for improved relations with Delhi.
Sadly, all this bodes poorly for the region. There are many urgent matters on which it is in Pakistan and India’s long-term interest to work closely, ranging from water and energy security to the endgame in Afghanistan, where fears of a return to proxy warfare are mounting. It’s another South Asian irony that deepening democracy across the region is unlikely to result in better diplomacy.