Pakistan: Cautiously pessimistic about Modi's expected rise to power

Reading time: 10 minutes

A decade of UPA-Congress rule in India ends with limited progress on the Indo-Pak relations.The fact that outgoing Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, despite his good intentions, could not visit the country of his birth even once sums up the structural constraints of this troubled relationship.

The first few years of Congress rule witnessed major developments in back-channel diplomacy and, if Pakistan’s former foreign minister Khursheed Mahmud Kasuri is to believed, a major breakthrough on the issue of Jammu & Kashmir was on the anvil before domestic political crisis led to the weakening and eventual ouster of General Musharraf in 2007-2008. In the later phases of bilateral diplomacy, modest achievements on trade and visa liberalization were realized. But the legacy of the 2008 Mumbai attack continued to haunt the trajectory of the bilateral relations for the past six years. Terrorism and rise of non-state actors in Pakistan shaped the public opinion and it seemed that political initiative of the Singh administration was almost always hostage to the power of corporate media that did not allow the evolution of a well-calibrated Pakistan policy in India.

This is a tough legacy for the incoming government in India. And even more so for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is expected to emerge as the single largest party in the Indian lower house of parliament. Though it is far from clear whether the BJP will form the next government, pundits in New Delhi and the doyens of Indian media have already garlanded Narendra Modi a few times over.

Narendra Modi - a controversial figure

In Pakistan the reputation of Mr Narendra Modi precedes him. He is viewed as a controversial figure specifically as a right-wing hardliner who espouses the Hindutva ideology and someone who advanced his political career on the rhetoric of hating the Muslims and their place in India’s past and present. Seen as an architect of the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots of 2002, his persona justifies the creation of Pakistan. Modi is an archetype that informs the Pakistani mind about the evil design of Hindus. Many Pakistanis believe his current political standing on the other side of the border is a reward for his anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan ‘ideology’.

Yet, public discussion on Modi being the potential Prime Minister of India has been largely mild in Pakistan. This has more to do with Pakistan’s current domestic woes relating to internal security and stability dominating rather than a concession for Modi’s record as a developmentalist and the imperatives of governance which are likely to temper his conduct in office. Nonetheless, in the policy-making elites, a debate has ensued for what Modi’s rise means for Pakistan and how, if elected, Prime Minister Modi and return of the BJP to power could impact the trajectory of Indo-Pak bilateral relations and the regional stability at large.

At the official level, Pakistan’s government hopes to resume currently suspended composite dialogue with the new government in New Delhi. Recently, Islamabad held back on taking steps meant for normalizing trade with India, because the year old Sharif administration chose to wait for the new government rather than bypassing the fears of business lobbies and establishments in awarding the Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) to India. Sharif however is keen to start a result-oriented engagement with the new Indian political dispensation. However, skepticism sways the future of Indo-Pak relations partly due to the hawkish manifesto released by the BJP.

BJP’s manifesto has left some room open for negotiation

Questions are being raised whether India led by Modi will resume composite dialogue or Modi will resort to chauvinism on the issue of Jammu & Kashmir, foment instability in Baluchistan or will engage in a (proxy) power-struggle in Afghanistan. At the same time, the BJP’s manifesto has left some room open for negotiation and is not all that rigid. This is not surprising as the BJP’s record in office is not all that bad when it comes to engaging with Pakistan. Former PM Vajpayee engaged with Sharif in his last tenure and then, despite the disastrous Kargil war, talked to General Musharraf.

In Modi’s case, Nawaz Sharif will be constrained due to the reputation that Modi has built for himself. Modi’s ascension to the office of Prime Minister will provide enough ammunition to the non-state actors to prevent Sharif from purposeful engagement, and even the powerful military will find it easier to oppose normalization citing the groundswell of ‘public opinion’ in Pakistan.

The manifesto of the BJP is viewed with some reservations in Pakistan because of its hawkish and revisionist undertones. For instance it declares Kashmir as a non-negotiable issue and calls for removing Article 370 - which guarantees special status to state of Jammu and Kashmir as an autonomous state in the Indian Union - from the Indian constitution. If it materializes, this is naturally bound to escalate tensions with Pakistan.

Furthermore, the BJP manifesto also calls for the reversal of India’s traditional nuclear doctrine built on the principle of ‘No-First Use’ (NFU). According to this doctrine, India has stated that it will not be the first state which will resort to using nuclear weapons in the event of an armed conflict. Do the rhetorical calls for revising an established NFU doctrine signal an assertive and provocative posturing by the prospective Modi led BJP administration in the near future on nuclear and strategic issues? It brings some relief that Modi himself told the media there will be no such reversal. In case such a path is pursued, it may destabilize the fragile deterrence stability in the South Asia region and is likely to force Islamabad to respond forcefully to ‘restore’ the strategic balance. Pakistani pundits fear that if BJP’s hard-liners’ rhetoric is put into action, it may lead South Asia into another crisis through a calculated brinksmanship and endangering regional stability and international security.

Not unlike the Congress position, the BJP manifesto mentions Pakistan as a source of cross-border terrorism and how its policies compound the internal security challenges for New Delhi. The manifesto rhetorically promises a strong Indian ‘response’ to deal with Pakistan.

A critical variable - the growing assertiveness by the Indian army

The growing assertiveness being displayed by the Indian army is another critical variable which could shape Modi’s policies in near future. The Indian army has in the recent past resisted calls for troops’ withdrawal from the disputed Siachen Glacier and even scuttled an agreement between the two countries which could have been a first step towards resolving the Kashmir dispute. A prospective alignment between the hawkish military and hardliner Modi on the policy of ‘zero-tolerance’ with Pakistan on issues of terrorism will heighten the tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi. It can even lead to possible limited Indian military strikes on Pakistani territory thus escalating a conflict under a nuclear overhang.

Skeptics in Islamabad argue that Premier Modi could be a setback for Indo-Pak relations. Former Ambassador to India, Riaz Khokhar, told senior journalist Mariana Baabar that “If Modi wins, he will be a prisoner of the RSS […] (He) will show no flexibility or pragmatism on substantive issues between the two countries”. Similarly, Pakistan’s former envoy to the US and the UK, Maleeha Lodhi, reportedly stated that “there are too many unknowns about Modi […] The muscular nationalism he represents could translate into a hardening of India’s stance on issues affecting ties.”[1]

Despite the nationalistic underpinnings of the BJP and the hardliner stance of Modi, Pakistani leadership has been less pessimistic. Mr. Sartaj Aziz, advisor on foreign affairs told the British paper The Telegraph that “the last time we had a breakthrough in our relationship was also with a BJP government. Mr. Vajpayee was from the BJP”.[2]. Islamabad’s vision for regional cooperation under PM Nawaz Sharif focuses on the economic opportunities that will result in better ties with Afghanistan and India as Pakistan could turn into a trade hub for Central, Western and Southern Asia. This is where Modi’s vision for economic growth and regional trade will coincide with that of the Sharif administration.

An important point to ponder is that former PM Vajpayee had wide experience of foreign affairs during his long political career. As an MP and later as India’s foreign minister during 1977-79 he gained hands-on knowledge of foreign policy and diplomacy. On the other hand, Modi has never been an MP at the centre and his stand on foreign policy is largely an untested issue. It is not ever clear who among the BJP is advising him on such matters. Pakistan is just about the only foreign policy issue that finds space in his public speeches though he has also spoken of improving relations with China mainly for economic reasons.

Indo-Pak relations: Is Modi a 'doer'?

While there may be some posturing in such a stance by Islamabad, there is a genuine feeling that Modi as a ‘doer’ could lead a breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations which his weak predecessor could not achieve. A cautious hope for détente is also being expressed, as analysts believe a hardliner like Modi can take radical decisions compared to the secular parties of India, which always find it expedient to appease the right wing at home. Modi has used some inflammatory words for Pakistan and its ‘agents’ in India while attacking the incumbent party, but the exercise of power is a secular process and many in Islamabad think that Modi would have to do business with Pakistan at some point if he truly wishes to implement his economic agenda for India’s progress.

For India, an improved relationship with Pakistan will enable it to gain access to Central Asian markets, which are becoming increasingly crucial for New Delhi. The competition with China may be a strategic choice which would push Modi’s government towards a more centrist approach while dealing with India’s traditional foe. Optimists in Islamabad hope that Modi’s so-called “Gujarat Model” of economic development can pave way for bilateral cooperation on trade normalization, thus leading to relatively normal ties and continued engagement. Once the election frenzy is over and if a coalition government headed by Modi comes into power, a new set of dynamics will guide policies of New Delhi.

It is unclear which of Modi’s many faces will prevail after May 2014. The ‘Hindu-extremist’, ‘anti-Muslim’ Modi, or the pragmatic, developmentalist Modi who might follow the footsteps of former Indian premier Vajpayee to make a fresh start with neighboring Islamabad on the contours of bilateral relationship? Only time will tell. The two countries are expected to resume bilateral dialogue soon after the Indian elections. The real test of Sharif’s leadership will begin once the new government takes office in New Delhi. Whether Islamabad remains hostage to the old, worn out doctrines on India or there is a prospect for a fresh start remains to be seen. The most critical factor for Islamabad would be to rein in the non-state actors who zealously guard Pakistan’s ideological frontier these days.


[1] See: "Through a Spyglass", in The Outlook, April 21, 2014.

[2] See: "Pakistan 'not worried' by prospect of Narendra Modi, a notorious hardliner, becoming Indian PM" in The Telegraph, March 13, 2014.

More articles, interviews, analyses, studies and publications in our web dossier:
"India's election year – Moving forward or standing still?"