After Modi's Big Win: Can India and Pakistan Enhance Relations?

August 11, 2014 Topic: SecurityForeign Policy Region: IndiaPakistan

After Modi's Big Win: Can India and Pakistan Enhance Relations?

Are conditions ripe for a leap forward in ties between the long-time rivals?


Rivalry in Afghanistan

But even back-channel negotiations are unlikely to prevent the rivalry from playing out once again in Afghanistan. With the departure of U.S. forces slated for the end of 2016 at the latest, chances are that Afghanistan will again become the backdrop for a proxy conflict because few core interests on either side would be at stake, thus diminishing the risk of a nuclear escalation.


Both sides deny this possibility. Pakistani officials keep claiming that the era of interfering in its northern neighbor’s internal affairs is over. As evidence of such ostensibly responsible behavior, Islamabad has reached out to its erstwhile foes from the former Northern Alliance, facilitated a reconciliation process between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and cooperated in the Afghan elections, assuring everyone that it did not support any particular group. Some believe, however, that Pakistan is still trying to promote the emergence of an Afghan government it can influence or control, and expedite the return of Afghan refugees to prevent their potentially violent involvement in Pakistani politics. What Pakistan presents as a wholesale reversal of its old strategy is merely a tactical readjustment designed to meet changing realities on the ground. Interference is still a reality, despite some genuine rethinking in some government circles.

The participation of the Taliban in the Afghan government (or their control of some provinces) is antithetical to New Delhi’s primary goals of preventing the return of the Taliban to power, while also weakening the connection between the Taliban and the Pakistani security establishment. To thwart such an outcome, New Delhi has established around Afghanistan a quasicontainment policy with all of Kabul’s neighbors except Pakistan, and unfailingly supports the Afghan government.

But the announced U.S withdrawal will inevitably weaken India’s position. New Delhi knows that its support to Kabul will at best slow down the erosion of the government authority. More importantly, the political chaos or even simply the additional tensions that could possibly result from the accusations of fraud in the second round of Afghanistan’s elections will further diminish the legitimacy of the next government at a time when the insurgency is showing a new vigor in the east and the south of the country. So far, Pakistan’s preoccupation with anti-Islamabad militants offers India the best protection against excessive interference in its Afghanistan affairs, but it makes New Delhi dependent on a situation it does not control.


Although India and Pakistan officially profess their goodwill towards one another, none of the conditions for a real rapprochement are met.

Despite Pakistan’s assurances that it is ready to seek an agreement with Modi, as it did under the last BJP government, the consensus between civilian and military is only superficial. It would, however, be a mistake to assume that the military is resolutely opposed to all kinds of rapprochement with India. The military still needs the civilian government to break the vicious cycle of economic regression and international isolation in which successive governments (including military regimes) and adventurist policies of the security establishment have locked up the country. It therefore wants the prime minister to improve relations with New Delhi in service of that goal, but to do so without creating the kind of organic links that would emerge from the development of a strong economic relationship. Moreover, peace with India would challenge the narrative that the military’s outsized role in Pakistani government and society is essential to the country’s security, and would, therefore, seriously challenge its influence on Pakistani politics.

Still, it is clear that the military is no longer politically omnipotent. The relative unity of the mainstream political parties on the issue of noncooperation with the military limits the latter’s capacity to manipulate politics. This opens some space for the government to maneuver, including in relations with India: Nawaz Sharif can initiate a rapprochement with India provided it does not lead to the abandonment of any of Pakistan’s traditional claims.

On the Indian side, Modi does not consider Pakistan a priority. India would benefit from better relations with Pakistan, but its economic future does not depend on it. Yet all previous attempts to ignore Pakistan ended up with the resumption of terrorist attacks, a situation that India wants to avoid, not least because a possible escalation into even a conventional conflict with Pakistan could impede the new government’s program of economic reform.         

Pakistan, although the weaker of the two actors, controls to a large extent the evolution of the relationship. But the choice facing Islamabad involves more than its bilateral relations with India. Pakistan must decide between joining the development bandwagon, or becoming increasingly marginalized in the international community. Making this decision will require that Pakistan speak with a single voice, including both the government and the security establishment. Given the configuration of Pakistan’s polity, only a consolidation of democracy in the country will allow for substantial improvements in the relationship with India. But this will be, at best, an incremental process.

Bilateral relations are, therefore, likely to fluctuate between periods of appeasement and occasional crisis. There is little chance of a major conflict, but the worsening of the security situation on both countries’ fringes in Afghanistan and Kashmir could revive the risk of terrorism, possibly in connection with violent extremism.

Frederic Grare is senior associate and director of Carnegie’s South Asia Program. His research focuses on South Asian security issues and the search for a security architecture. He also works on India’s “Look East” policy, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s regional policies, and the tension between stability and democratization, including civil-military relations, in Pakistan.

Image: India prime minister website