Indian election results will not be in for another six weeks, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems on track to win the most parliamentary seats, making it likely that Narendra Modi will be the country’s next prime minister. With Modi’s rise to power comes an increased likelihood of greater Indo-Pakistani tensions and potential for military escalation, especially if a major terrorist attack occurs in India.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s personal commitment to maintaining peaceful ties with Islamabad, despite attacks in India over the last several years that were often traced back to Pakistan-based groups, has kept bilateral ties in check. Aware of the deteriorating security situation inside Pakistan, Singh gave Pakistani leaders the benefit of the doubt, calculating that India’s interests were better served trying to engage with Pakistani civilian leaders rather than allowing hostility to define the relationship.
There are indications a BJP-led government would be less patient with Pakistan than its Congress party predecessor. The BJP leadership last year condemned the Pakistan parliament for passing a resolution against the hanging of Afzal Guru, a militant from Kashmir that was convicted for his role in the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. In response to Pakistan’s action, BJP leaders demanded New Delhi downgrade relations with Islamabad and suspend confidence-building measures.
It’s also true, however, that former BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made a historic visit to Lahore in 1999 and encouraged back-channel talks on Kashmir that almost achieved a break-through until they were derailed by the Pakistani Army’s incursion into Kargil on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC).
But even before Vajpayee took the helm as PM, he was known for his predilection toward establishing peace with Pakistan. Modi, on the other hand, has been portrayed by some observers as anti-Muslim due to the communal rioting on his watch in Gujarat that led to the killing of nearly one thousand people, mostly Muslims.
Aware of his need to repair his reputation, Modi’s recent pledge to continue on the path carved by Vajpayee in Kashmir could be aimed at reassuring Pakistanis and Kashmiri Muslims. Modi said Vajpayee’s policies on Kashmir rested on three principles: humanity, democracy and “Kashmiriyat” (ethnic identity and cultural values of Kashmiri-speaking people). The tone of Modi’s recent statement on Kashmir diverges from the official platform of the BJP, which is to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomous status.
Modi, if elected, is likely to focus at the outset on reviving the Indian economy. The economic success of Gujarat (the state where he currently serves as Chief Minister) is largely credited to Modi’s pro-business and pro-reform economic policies.
Having learned from the BJP’s last tenure that peaceful relations with Pakistan are a prerequisite for maintaining the confidence of foreign investors, it would be in India’s economic interest for the new PM to keep a lid on Indo-Pakistani tensions. With his business background, Modi may also see the merit in prioritizing improved Indo-Pakistani trade ties and bring fresh thinking on the issue.
Less Patience with Terrorism
The real test for Indo-Pakistani relations under a Modi-led government would be a terrorist attack with links to Pakistan. Having criticized PM Singh and the Congress-led government for being too soft on Pakistan, Modi and other BJP leaders will be under pressure to react strongly in the face of a terrorist provocation. Had the BJP been in power during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, it is likely the government would have retaliated against Pakistan by significantly downgrading diplomatic relations.
Recent arrests in India of terrorists trained in Pakistan are likely to add a chill to bilateral ties, no matter who takes power in New Delhi this May. Indian authorities last month arrested a Pakistani bomb expert who was allegedly involved in several attacks in India over the last four years. Another terrorist from the same outfit, the Indian Mujahideen, was arrested in India last week and was allegedly behind the bombing of one of Modi’s campaign rallies last October in the state of Bihar.
There also is growing concern about the impact on Indo-Pakistani relations of the international troop drawdown in Afghanistan and whether the Kashmir conflict could re-ignite. A key Kashmiri militant leader, Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group, recently resurfaced in Pakistan to address a large public rally, where he called on suicide attackers to resume jihad against India. The year 2013 also saw an increase in militant infiltration from Pakistani territory into Indian-held Kashmir, according to Indian officials.
Last August Indo-Pakistani military tensions escalated for a brief period when a series of incidents along the LoC that divides Kashmir led to the killing of five Indian soldiers and a Pakistani civilian. The incidents led to charged rhetoric on both sides and dashed hopes for an early resumption of peace talks under the then-new Pakistani civilian government led by Nawaz Sharif.
If the BJP takes power, U.S. policymakers can take steps to help guard against the possibility of deteriorating Indo-Pakistani relations. While U.S. officials should not seek a mediation role, they can work behind the scenes to encourage Indo-Pakistani dialogue and inject ideas for moving a peace process forward.
Moreover, the U.S. must maintain pressure on Pakistan to crack down on Kashmir-focused terrorist groups. The Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008 should be viewed as the culmination of U.S. failure to connect the dots between Pakistani support for Kashmir-focused terrorist groups and the broader international terrorist threat.
Washington should also remain vigilant in monitoring the human-rights situation inside Jammu and Kashmir, raising concerns with the Indian government when necessary. In the summer of 2010 protests that turned violent in Kashmir led to the killing of 126 Muslim youth by Indian security forces.
Lastly, the U.S. should encourage trade, joint economic projects, and civil-society engagement among the people from both sides of Kashmir.
While there was no resolution to the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir during the last ten years of Congress rule, PM Singh deserves credit for keeping the two countries out of military conflict. A Modi-led government raises the prospect that this period of relative calm between the historical rivals could end in the face of a terrorist provocation. In that event, the U.S will have to pull out all stops to keep the nuclear-armed neighbors from military escalation.
Image: Flickr/ Al Jazeera English . CC BY-SA 2.0.