India-Pakistan Relations after Modi’s Re-election
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: Reuters)
By Abdul Basit

India-Pakistan Relations after Modi’s Re-election

Jun. 11, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphatic election victory was not only a reaffirmation of his Hindu nationalist agenda but also an endorsement of his muscular foreign policy, particularly towards Pakistan. India’s relationship with Pakistan was one of the defining issues of Modi’s election campaign.  


In February 2019, following the suicide attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir’s Pulwama district by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), Modi ordered airstrikes on alleged JeM camps in the Balakot district of Pakistan. The ensuing Pakistani retaliation culminated in a dog fight resulting in the downing of an Indian fighter jet and capture of the pilot who was released later as a conciliatory gesture by Pakistan. It turned out to be propitious in timing as the Indian media’s victory spin to these developments improved Modi’s declining public ratings.


Pakistani media and political parties reacted with cautious optimism to Modi’s re-election. In a tweet, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulated Modi and said “Look forward to work with him for peace, progress and prosperity in South Asia.” Prior to his re-election, Khan considered Modi’s return to power as a good sign for India-Pakistan ties. Unlike previous Pakistani governments, Khan has cordial relations with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. So, his outreach to India comes with the military’s blessings.


The post-election developments have shown a positive intent from both sides. On May 23, Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers Sushma Swaraj and Shah Mehmood Qureshi met informally on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) foreign ministers summit in Kyrgyzstan. Islamabad also relaxed airspace restrictions (which are ending on May 31) for Swaraj to travel to Kyrgyzstan to attend the SCO meeting.

Pakistan is appointing a national security adviser, a position which has been vacant since June 2018, to restart the backchannel diplomacy with India. Similarly, in March 2019, Islamabad has appointed Sohail Mehmood as its foreign secretary; Mehmood was Pakistan’s high commissioner to India.


Pakistan needs to normalize with India for strategic reasons. For one, it needs to ease mounting pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a multilateral global watch-dog overlooking money laundering and counter-terrorist financing. FATF has been giving Pakistan a very tough time over taking action against India-focused militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and JeM, particularly freezing their funds and other assets. Presently, the director general of Indian Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) is the co-chair of FATF’s Asia Pacific Joint Group, which is reviewing Pakistan’s compliance with FATF’s recommendations. In May, India scored a major diplomatic win when it convinced China to withdraw its technical hold on JeM chief Masood Azhar’s designation as a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).


In addition, Pakistan’s slowing economic growth and mounting external debt situation also necessitate diplomatic engagement with India. Normalization with India will ease extra defense expenditures from Pakistan’s exchequer. Since February, Pakistan has been maintaining a high-alert on Indian border in Kashmir along with closing the airspace for India until May 31.


Notwithstanding Pakistan’s conciliatory gestures, Modi has come with a bigger mandate, so he will have strong domestic support to keep Pakistan on a tight leash. There is also no pressure on New Delhi from the United States to normalize with Pakistan. In fact, during the Pulwama crisis, the US supported India’s right to self-defense and did not object to India’s violation of Pakistan’s airspace when India struck alleged JeM camps in Balakot.

India’s preoccupation with dismantling terrorist networks as a pre-condition for peace and Pakistan’s insistence on resolving the Kashmir dispute for long-lasting peace in South Asia will scuttle any meaningful progress beyond exploratory parleys.

India-Pakistan disagreements span beyond bilateral disputes to some regional issues as well. For instance, India is part of the Indo-Pacific alliance, which also includes the US, Japan and Australia, while Pakistan is a staunch ally of China in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India is apprehensive of growing Chinese footprint in Pakistan, particularly in the disputed Giligt-Baltistan (GB) area, which is closer to the Chinese border. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), BRI’s flagship project, originates from Xinjiang province, enters Pakistan through GB and culminates at the Gwadar seaport in Balochistan. In May 2019, Pakistani security agencies allegedly dismantled a Research and Analysis (RAW)-supported network, Balwaristan National Front (Hameed Group), which aimed to destabilize Gilgit Baltistan and CPEC projects.


India and Pakistan also do not see eye to eye on the ongoing Afghan peace process. Pakistan supports the Afghan Taliban’s unconditional incorporation in the Afghan power-structure through military and political concessions. On its part, India backs President Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government and continuation of democracy in Afghanistan. India conditionally supports Taliban’s inclusion if the insurgent group accepts the current Afghan government and constitution, announces a ceasefire agreement and provides guarantees of not reversing the gains made in Afghanistan after 9/11 such as female education and their greater participation in the public sphere.


Likewise, Pakistan accuses Indian of fomenting trouble in Pakistan by supporting the Baloch separatist groups from Afghanistan. India is apprehensive of Afghanistan’s return to the Taliban which then could be used by India-focused militant groups as a training and launching pad against India.


The contestation also exists over Kashmir where tensions have been rising with regards to Modi’s pre-election promises of doing away with Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution. These articles accept Kashmir’s special status in the Indian federation. Pakistan opposes any amendments to these constitutional provisions. If India moves ahead with the proposed amendments, India-Pakistan tensions will increase further.     


In 2014, when Modi won the general elections, he did not have any baggage of confrontation vis a vis Pakistan unlike other Indian premises. However, now he has a running conflict with Pakistan. Hence, it is not surprising that India has not invited Khan to Modi’s oath-taking ceremony. This indicates that India will take step to deescalate current levels of hostility with Pakistan but it will maintain a status quo on all other issues.


Post Balakot airstrikes, the major challenge for India and Pakistan would be crisis management in case of a future terrorist attack. The new threshold of striking in mainland Pakistan has raised the expectation costs which will make Modi a prisoner of his own commitment trap. Anything less than surgical strikes carried out in 2016 after the Pathankot air base attack or airstrikes after the Pulwama attack will not satisfy Modi’s hyper-nationalist Hindutva supporters. However, such adventurism carries immense risk of miscalculations that could lead to un-intentional and un-anticipated escalations. Hence, reviving the backchannel diplomacy to discuss crisis management and mitigating mechanism in hostile situation is essential even if talks are not restored. 


The recent conciliatory gestures between Indian and Pakistan will help bring down the current level of bilateral hostility but any substantive improvement is unlikely. India will keep the pressure on Pakistan through bilateral and multilateral forums to extract more concessions. Additionally, India’s preoccupation with dismantling terrorist networks as a pre-condition for peace and Pakistan’s insistence on resolving the Kashmir dispute for long-lasting peace in South Asia will scuttle any meaningful progress beyond exploratory parleys. Hence, the current status quo in India-Pakistan relations is likely to persist.

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