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Modi Could Squander An Unprecedented Chance At Normalizing India-Pakistan Ties

Mired in economic and internal crises, Pakistan
is primed for normalization and trade with India—but
Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is failing to
seize the chance

When Narendra Modi returned
to power for a second term in India with a landslide victory
in 2019, his government acted swiftly. Just months after the
election, the Modi government abrogated
Article 370
of the Constitution of India. In doing so,
it stripped the special constitutional status conferred on
Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and
downgraded its status from a state with its own elected
assembly to a union territory administered by the central
government in Delhi. The move disrupted the tremulous status
quo that India and Pakistan had been holding on to in
Kashmir for decades: India demanding that Pakistan withdraw
from the north and west of Kashmir, which are under
Pakistan’s administration, and Pakistan demanding a
referendum to determine who administers the whole territory,
with both parties holding steadfastly to the Line of
Control. Angered by the Modi government’s move, Pakistan
retaliated by suspending trade ties with India.

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recently, Pakistan’s position vis-à-vis India emphasized
a resolution to the Kashmir issue as a prior step to
movement on any other matters. Now, with Pakistan in a dire
economic crisis, no prospects of a softened stance from
India, and a possible third term as prime minister for Modi
after India’s looming general election, Pakistan might be
forced to seek a resumption of trade ties while putting
Kashmir on the backburner.

Ever since Modi became
India’s prime minister in 2014, there has always been
anticipation in Pakistan—heightened during each Indian
election season—that the Modi government will mobilize
anti-Pakistan rhetoric to energize its base. In April 2019,
at a campaign rally in Rajasthan before the last general
election, Modi announced his readiness to use India’s
nuclear weapons against Pakistan. “Have we kept our
nuclear bomb for Diwali?” he asked the crowd. Pakistan
immediately denounced the remarks as “highly unfortunate
and irresponsible” and a foreign office spokesperson
called out Modi’s use of such “rhetoric for short-term
political and electoral gains, with complete disregard to
its effects on strategic stability in South Asia,” rightly
deeming it “regrettable and against norms of responsible
nuclear behavior.”

Modi deployed similar hyperbole
while talking about a cross-border commando operation in
2016 and an air raid on Pakistan’s territory in early 2019
that New Delhi claimed to have conducted in retaliation for
militant attacks on the Indian military in Jammu and
Kashmir. The discussion around these operations, which Modi
called “surgical strikes,” had more political
significance in India than actual military significance
between India and Pakistan. By now they have even become the
subjects of Bollywood movies, making them part of popular
discourse in Modi’s favor.

Just this month, the
Guardian reported that intelligence officials from both
countries had alleged that India had a policy of targeting
terrorists on foreign soil, with 20 individuals killed in
Pakistan since 2020. While India denied the report, its
defense minister, Rajnath Singh, said that if “any
terrorist will try to disturb India from Pakistan, we will
give muh tod jawaab” (“a jaw-shattering
answer”). He added, “If needed, Pakistan mein ghus ke
” (“If needed, we will infiltrate Pakistan
and kill them”). Coming into another election season,
Singh was repeating Modi’s tough-on-terror rhetoric from
the “surgical strikes” in 2019. In Pakistan, the report
escalated fears over Indian conduct, further weakening the
prospects of a normalization of ties between India and
Pakistan—something that would entail a demilitarization
around Kashmir, an end to cross-border support for militancy
by both countries and greater exchanges between Indians and
Pakistanis via relaxed visa regimes as well as increased
trade and cooperation.

The anti-Pakistan imperatives
of Modi’s regional policies, in Pakistan’s view, are
part of a broader anti-Muslim domestic politics that has
defined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Modi.
Hindu nationalists have set Indian Muslims up as their
hapless punching bags at home, and Pakistan, with its Muslim
majority and acrimonious history with India, fills the same
role on the regional stage. A recent report
by India Hate Lab, a research group based in Washington,
D.C., showed 668 recorded incidents of hate speech targeting
Muslims in India in 2023. Of these events, 255 came in the
first half of the year and 413 in the second half—marking
a 62 percent increase in the build-up to the general
election, with the majority of all these incidents taking
place in Indian states with BJP governments in power. The
dominant view in Pakistan is that this trend, and a
corresponding inflammation of anti-Pakistan sentiment, will
grow further as the Indian election gets underway in April
and May, and also if—or if prevailing predictions are
correct, when—Modi wins his third consecutive

With this anticipation, Pakistan’s
policymakers think that an India that continues under Modi
will not be willing to engage with Pakistan vis-à-vis
Kashmir, and will likely increase its support for militant
groups operating against the Pakistan state, including the
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Baloch separatist outfits.
Almost five years after Article 370 was done away with, and
with the Supreme Court of India since having dismissed all
legal challenges to the validity of the action, the idea of
Kashmir as a Delhi-administered region without its earlier
special protections and limited autonomy has become deeply
entrenched and institutionalized in India. Pakistan cannot
realistically expect the Indian state to reverse this
position. It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible,
for even a non-BJP government to undo this change for fear
of popular backlash, and also because of the court’s
judgment declaring that Kashmir has no internal sovereignty
that sets it apart from other states and

The Track II channel of diplomacy between
India and Pakistan, which entails non-official meetings
between retired officials and academics of the two
countries, and in earlier decades was vaunted as a source of
hope for peace, has also not been able to yield any
meaningful results in the Modi years. Not only has it failed
to move the needle on the issues of Kashmir and terrorism,
but it has not even done so on reopening official channels
for dialogues and using diplomacy to resolve

With the Indian state locked in on its
stand on Kashmir, Pakistan is pushing for a new status quo
mirroring the Sino-Indian model of bilateral ties. Broadly,
this would mean opening up trade without necessarily pushing
for a prior resolution of outstanding territorial disputes.
For decades, and despite some clashes in mutually disputed
zones in recent years, India and China have been able to
steadily carry out and expand bilateral trade, whose present
value stands at around $136 billion per year. A 2018 World
Bank estimate showed that India-Pakistan trade could grow to
$37 billion per year if the right conditions materialize.
Pakistan, which has been on the verge of complete economic
collapse for the last few years, cannot ignore the critical
importance to its future of trade with India, and Islamabad
has been trying to find a way to realize its

When the pandemic hit, Pakistan resumed
imports of pharmaceuticals from India, nine months after it
suspended all trade with this neighbor. As its economic
situation has deteriorated, it has lifted more restrictions
to avail itself of cheap Indian goods. This March,
Pakistan’s foreign minister, Ishaq Dar, promised to
“seriously look into matters of trade with India.” It
bears emphasizing that it is not just Pakistan that stands
to gain: India could gain massive new markets in Pakistan,
and resources to further fuel its growth. If anything, with
its superior economy, India would secure the majority of the
projected $37 billion worth of bilateral trade—and all the
political and diplomatic leverage that would also come with

Even for the Pakistani military, a minimal
normalization of ties with India that can help change the
country’s economic situation, so long as it comes without
an overt compromise on Kashmir, is not necessarily a tough
bargain. Any subsequent boost to bilateral trade, which
could involve the Pakistani military’s approval and even
participation through its large
business holdings
, could help the military recover from
recent domestic backlash
to its involvement in and
manipulation of Pakistan’s politics. In addition, if trade
can reinforce peace on the border, this might allow the
Pakistani military to focus more clearly on dealing with the
resurgence of religious and nationalist militancy that has
recently gripped parts of Khyber
and Balochistan

For Pakistan, therefore, there are definite
advantages to adopting the “Sino-Indian” framework, but
the key question is whether India, led by Modi and the BJP,
will be willing to work with Pakistan to develop such a
framework. As a corollary, Pakistan should also ask what it
can do to convince India to pursue this model of bilateral

The optimistic view is that there is
already a base to work from. For more than three years,
since February 2021, India and Pakistan have observed a ceasefire
along the Line of Control
—making this one of the
longest-lasting ceasefires in the history of both countries
and showing how negotiated settlements are possible not only
to achieve but also to sustain. This ceasefire was
instituted by the Modi government on India’s side, and
there is reason to hope it will remain if a fresh Modi-led
administration returns to power. In that eventuality,
Pakistan can hope that a new Modi government can also be
convinced to resume trade relations.

What Pakistan can
do to maximize the probability of this is to eliminate any
existing support for militant groups seeking the
independence of Indian-administered Kashmir. For many years,
New Delhi has consistently accused Pakistan of supporting
terrorism, and the fact that many Pakistan-based militant
groups seek Kashmir’s independence reinforces this claim.
In 2022, Pakistan showed India it was serious about the
issue when it sentenced Hafiz Saeed, the co-founder of the
militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, to 31 years in prison
on charges of financing terror. A larger and decisive break
away from these groups might signal Pakistan’s readiness
to positively engage with India.

Pakistan should also
be watching how India has recently shifted its focus in
regional relations away from the beleaguered South Asian
Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and towards the
newer Bay of Bengal Initiative of Multi-Sectoral Technical
and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). BIMSTEC, headquartered
in Dhaka, includes all the SAARC countries except Pakistan,
Afghanistan, and the Maldives, and also includes Myanmar and
Thailand. Leaving behind the western flank of the
Subcontinent, and the India-Pakistan quarrels that have so
often hobbled SAARC, BIMSTEC is being pitched as an
alternative to SAARC and a mechanism to temper China’s
influence over the region. BIMSTEC states supported Modi’s
withdrawal from the SAARC summit scheduled for late 2016 in
Islamabad, which India saw as a diplomatic victory over

BIMSTEC has its own limitations, but its
development merits Pakistan’s attention, especially in
what it says about the future of SAARC. For all its
problems, SAARC offers a potential space for Pakistan to
engage with India in pursuit of normalization and trade.
Pakistan’s diplomats may do well to see how its fortunes
could be revived.

Where things go next will only be
clear after the Indian election. A strong BJP government
might not feel the need to sit at a negotiating table with
Pakistan, for reasons including its deeply entrenched
anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim politics—or, optimistically,
a Modi completely assured of his domestic unassailability
might feel he has the room to push for improved ties. There
is no hiding, however, that this latter scenario is a remote
possibility at best, as is the general possibility of a
Sino-Indian-style relationship between India and Pakistan.
There is a crucial difference between India’s ties with
Pakistan and its ties with China: India and China do not
have a communal angle to their territorial conflict. Even if
Pakistan wants to move away from its reliance on non-state
actors in Kashmir to achieve meaningful improvement in the
bilateral relationship, a Modi-led India, with its
institutionally cultivated hate against Muslims and
Pakistan, is unlikely to take any step that can undermine
its political standing at home.

If Modi’s India
continues to relentlessly pursue its Hindu nationalist
ideals, with an aggressive antipathy towards Muslims and a
suppression of the fundamental rights of the Indian Muslim
community, it will be equally politically difficult for
Pakistan’s government to seriously advocate for improved
trade and relations, despite its economic

By Salman Rafi

Author Bio: Salman Rafi
Sheikh is an assistant professor of politics at Lahore
University of Management

Source: Himal

This article is part of
India from the Edges
,” a special series by
presenting Southasian regional
perspectives on Narendra Modi’s decade in power and
possible return as prime minister in the 2024 Indian
election. The article is distributed in partnership with

© Scoop Media

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