Expect the unexpected from Modi

The Express Tribune

By Kamran Yousaf

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bhartia Janta Party (BJP) returned to power with a bang. While his supporters are celebrating the historic victory, Modi’s opponents and critics fear that India’s secular foundation is under serious threat.

The re-election of Modi is also of great interest for Pakistan. His previous five-year term showed that Modi could take steps for peace but at the same time lead the two countries to a war. Against this backdrop what should we expect from him in next five years in office?

There are at least some signs that ice may melt between the two nuclear-armed neighbours in coming months. This can be judged from the prompt felicitation message Prime Minister Imran Khan sent to his Indian counterpart, who also took no time in reciprocating the gesture. A day before the BJP was officially declared a winner, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj had an unexpected interaction at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Kyrgyzstan. This was the first direct high-level contact between Pakistan and India since the PTI formed government in August last year and most importantly after the military standoff in February. Given the current hosilitites between the two neighbours, even informal meeting between the two foreign ministers holds great significance.

So, can the relationship between the two countries be turned around? For Pakistan, a lot will depend on India since it is always willing to discuss all issues through dialogue. New Delhi has repeatedly spurned Islamabad’s peace overtures citing lack of progress in eliminating the alleged cross-border terrorism. Given Modi’s track record, there is a possibility that he may reengage with Pakistan. There are many factors behind this possible shift. The most important one is that India even knows that pre-election rhetoric and hardline approach is not sustainable in the long run. The continued tensions on the border even affect India. Also given the fact that he has now been given even a stronger mandate than 2014, he will be in a position to take bold decisions.

Even in 2014, he ran election campaign on anti-Pakistan platform but he sprang a big surprise when he invited the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, on his oath taking ceremony. He also put his political capital at stake when he made an unprecedented stopover in Lahore in December 2015. His government even allowed Pakistani intelligence officials access to one of their bases for investigations into the Pathankot attack. Modi only hardened his stance as he felt Pakistan betrayed him despite all those “gestures.” At that time the civil-military leadership in Pakistan was apparently not on the same page. There were concerns within the security establishment that Nawaz Sharif might be seeking rapprochement for his personal interests. That impression made impossible for any meaningful engagement between Pakistan and India.

After the Pulwama attack, Imran promised to bring to justice the perpetrators if their link was established with Pakistan. He said he could not be held accountable over the decisions taken by previous administrations but under his command Pakistani soil would never be used against India. There is a feeling within the saner voices in India that the Modi government should trust Imran and give peace a chance.

Imran himself acknowledged in one of his recent interviews that Pakistan and India had better chances of peace under the rightwing BJP, led by Prime Minister Modi, than Congress. His assessment stemmed from the fact that rightwing leaders can only take the tough decision. The same can be true in Imran’s case who unlike Nawaz is perceived as nationalist and hence can never compromise on Pakistan’s interest.

So, the recent hostilities aside, there is more than the hope that the relationship between the two neighbours may see a positive turn. But, India, under Modi, can be unpredictable.