Dealing with Modi’s India

Why Islamabad should adopt a wait-and-see approach

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi (Diplomacy)

Published: Sun 25 May 2014, 10:23 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:40 PM

As India’s new leadership takes charge, Pakistan should calmly weigh the implications of the election result for relations between the two countries and consider how — and when — to engage the new government in Delhi. The policy response needs to be carefully calculated and calibrated and guided by a sober appraisal, avoiding both a wishful, over-eager reaction and an alarmist one.

After a stunning electoral victory, the Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP) is now engaged in the process of government formation and choosing the members of its team. Its leader, Narandra Modi, has been a polarising politician whose communal track record has aroused legitimate apprehensions both at home and abroad.

Certainly the party he leads is quite different today from that which governed India in 1998-2004, as many Indian commentators have pointed out. The BJP’s past stint in power may therefore not be a reliable guide to the future.

A new and untested political entity in Delhi will confront Islamabad with fresh diplomatic challenges. How relations between the two countries will evolve will depend, in large part, on how Modi’s avowed muscular nationalism translates into policy. Some Indian analysts are already predicting “a more muscular China and Pakistan policy”. But no one in the BJP has spelt out what that might mean in practice. How a Modi-led government will break from the fundamentals of India’s foreign policy is yet to be determined.

For Pakistan, distinguishing between what the BJP has said in the election and what it actually does in government will help to fashion a sound approach to deal with the new dispensation. The BJP manifesto has had little to say on foreign policy. Modi too has avoided saying much, probably because he needed to overcome his international status of outcast, owed to his role in the 2002 killing of Muslims in Gujarat.

An important question is whether Modi’s emphasis on reviving India’s struggling economy, his ‘development’ agenda, and support from corporate India, will urge him toward more pragmatic policies and focus on economic issues rather than the Hindutva agenda or sabre rattling against neighbours.

For now this question is wrapped in uncertainty. That is why Islamabad should adopt a wait-and-see approach until the new government settles in, defines its agenda and sets out its foreign policy direction.

Rather than rush headlong into hasty, poorly-thought engagement, Islamabad should first fully assess the situation and then evolve a coherent diplomatic strategy that can best promote the goal of normalising relations with India on mutually acceptable terms.

There are of course concerns in Pakistan that Modi’s government might adopt a harder line on Kashmir. Persuading Delhi for talks that recognise Kashmir’s importance to the normalisation process will likely be more problematic under Modi than it was during Congress rule.

The fundamental issue Islamabad will have to address is how to deal with the new government if, as present indications suggest, Delhi refuses to revive the broad based “composite” dialogue, cherry picks issues of priority to India and excludes Kashmir and other disputes from the structured engagement between the two countries.

Should Islamabad then just engage on trade/economic issues that the BJP government might be responsive to, and agree to put contentious issues, all of which are deadlocked, on the backburner? Can this approach even work or be sustainable when the strategic environment between the two neighbours remains fraught, and unresolved disputes cast a dark shadow over developing a more normal relationship?

A new government in Delhi will undoubtedly offer an opportunity for a reset of relations. But to build a sustainable basis for normalisation, Islamabad should not be lured into accepting a selective approach to engagement based only on so-called ‘soft issues’ when it knows that discord over ‘hard issues’ can easily erupt into tensions and derail even modest movement in economic ties. This happened again last year when tensions on the Line of Control in Kashmir halted progress in liberalising trade.

It will be a diplomatic error to settle for a fragmented normalisation process instead of the long-accepted, comprehensive, eight-issue framework for dialogue, which reflects the priorities and concerns of both sides.

Once the new government has had time to settle down, Pakistan should seek the revival of a full-fledged peace process on the grounds that limiting the bilateral engagement to a single track will neither build enduring economic relations nor make longstanding disputes go away. It should also seek to test the Modi government on substance rather than gestures.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US and UK

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