India and Pakistan: Right-Leaning Governments Take The Stage in the Subcontinent's Geopolitics

9 MINS READMay 27, 2014 | 09:14 GMT
India and Pakistan: Right-Leaning Governments Take The Stage in the Subcontinent's Geopolitics
A composite photo shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
(SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images, Oli Scarff - WPA Pool /Getty Images)

The landslide victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by its controversial chief Narendra Modi, in India's recent general elections has significant ramifications for Indo-Pakistani relations, especially as Islamabad is preoccupied with the cross-border Taliban insurgency on its western flank. Modi's incoming government will have to balance between its need for pragmatism and its imperative to show that it has a more effective and tougher policy toward the threats emanating from Pakistan than the previous Indian government. Conversely, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's administration has a need to improve ties with India but faces massive resistance from within the security establishment. Since both governments are led by right-wing nationalists with strong opinions on religion and significant political capital in their respective countries, they are likely to make some bold moves but overall will be limited in how far they can go in terms of pushing for peace.

In some ways, the Indo-Pakistani dynamic has returned to where it was 15 years ago. In early 1999, the parties currently in power ran both governments. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League had won a two-thirds majority in parliament in the 1997 elections, and the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee won a comfortable majority in 1998. Within months of winning the election, the Bharatiya Janata Party government moved to conduct nuclear tests, prompting Pakistan to follow suit. In May 1998, it seemed as though tensions between the traditional rivals had escalated exponentially. However, in February 1999, the relationship improved dramatically when the Indian prime minister made a historic visit to the Pakistani city of Lahore by bus and signed the Lahore Declaration, which strongly suggested that the two neighbors had finally put their acrimonious past behind them.

Just a few months later, though, tensions erupted again. In May 1999, the Kargil conflict began when Pakistani troops backing several thousand Islamist militiamen crossed the Line of Control and occupied the heights in the Kargil sector of India-controlled Kashmir. The conflict that lasted until July reversed whatever gains were made during Vajpayee's Lahore trip and led to heightened civil-military tensions in Pakistan.

Three months later, a bungled attempt by Sharif to remove army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the architect of the Kargil operation, resulted in the prime minister's ouster in a coup that brought the country's fourth military regime to power. New Delhi tried to deal with the Musharraf government, especially in light of the 9/11 attacks, which forced Islamabad to freeze its support for anti-Indian Islamist militant proxies.

Attacks on the Indian parliament in December 2001 brought the two nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of war in 2002. However, back-channel diplomacy allowed the two sides to begin de-escalating from the standoff — which involved nearly 1 million troops on the Line of Control and the India-Pakistan border — by mid-summer. Vajpayee visited Pakistan again in January 2004, and the countries experienced an unprecedented warming of relations. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party lost the elections held in the spring, and the Congress party returned to power in India.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and India

Afghanistan, Pakistan and India

A Rougher Road Toward Peace

The Indo-Pakistani relationship continued to improve even with the Congress government in New Delhi until the Mumbai attacks in 2008, which were carried out by Islamist militants outside Islamabad's control, whose backers were among rogue officials within the Pakistani foreign intelligence service. For the second time in six years, the two countries' militaries were face to face, and once more diplomacy and U.S. mediation averted conflict on the subcontinent.

The Congress and Pakistan People's Party governments tried to improve relations over the next five years. The governments made some headway when Islamabad announced that it would grant India most-favored nation status based on the idea that increasing trade over time could lead to a resolution of security-related issues. However, India and Pakistan could not make progress, largely because Pakistan was preoccupied with domestic political issues and tensions with the United States over the Afghan insurgency during 2011 and 2012.

After 14 years in the political wilderness, Sharif returned to power when his party won a comfortable majority in the May 2013 elections and vowed to pick up where he left off in 1999 with the process of normalizing relations with India. Many quarters within India welcomed Sharif's election as a good omen for improving bilateral relations — particularly because the Pakistani military's role in policymaking had weakened since the Musharraf regime's fall and because Sharif's return to power marked the first democratic transition of power in Pakistan's history — despite the country's massive jihadist problem.

However, by this time India's Congress government was on its way out of power, a process completed when the Bharatiya Janata Party won the most recent elections with a massive mandate. Thus, both countries are once again ruled by their right-wing parties, which traditionally are better placed to make the tough decisions required for a detente. However, they cannot simply pick up from where they left off in 1999 because that process was derailed and both countries have changed drastically in the past 15 years.

Obstacles to a Detente

Pakistan has the same prime minister and is indeed in a much better position to pursue peace with India than it was in 1999, but the Bharatiya Janata Party is not the same. Vajpayee and the older generation of pragmatic statesmen are no longer at the helm of the party. A much younger and more hawkish leadership inexperienced in foreign policy now commands the party. Modi's reputation as an anti-Muslim politician will limit the extent to which Sharif can move forward in improving ties with India, especially as his own security establishment — dominated by the army and Inter-Services Intelligence — is already trying to prevent the civilian government from benefiting from the democratization process and weaken its historically dominant role in foreign policy, especially when it comes to India and Afghanistan.

There is a reason why, in the May 20 meeting of Islamabad's top civil and military leaders, Sharif emphasized that the government intends to negotiate with the new Indian and Afghan governments. Long worried about the loss of its influence in Afghanistan, especially since the Taliban have gone from being a strategic asset to a threat to national security, the Pakistani military-intelligence complex is concerned that a Modi government would be more hostile to Pakistan and could work with the new Afghan government to create a strategic encirclement scenario that the Pakistani military has long sought to prevent. This is especially the case should Abdullah Abdullah (the most likely prospect among the Afghan camp that traditionally has opposed Pakistan and been closer to India) win the second round of elections and succeed Hamid Karzai as Afghan president.

The rise to power of potentially hostile forces in both New Delhi and Kabul thus compounds the long-standing perception that Pakistan's civilian government cannot manage foreign affairs and national security issues on its own. This was not much of a concern during the Pakistan People's Party era (2008-2013) precisely because it was a weak government and its leader, Asif Ali Zardari — who recently stepped down as president — was quite unpopular. Moreover, Zardari was not very assertive in trying to establish civilian supremacy over the military and let the latter continue to play a major role in foreign policy matters.

Sharif, on the other hand, has a history of bad relations with the army. Though he has come a long way from his aggressive days, Sharif remains steadfast in his ambitions to give civilian authorities more control. He is trying to emulate the successes of his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who over the past decade has neutralized the military's political influence. However, there is an obvious difference between the political and economic situations in the countries, which played a key role in the success of Turkey's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in establishing civilian supremacy over the military. Not only is Sharif dealing with a very bad economic situation, he also lacks the critical support his Turkish counterpart has had through various social and state channels such as the police, intelligence, media and the business community.

Moreover, the potential is growing for attacks by transnational jihadists that could undermine the latest thaw in Indo-Pakistani ties brought about by Sharif's attendance at Modi's May 26 inauguration and a planned bilateral talk between the two prime ministers. One such attack has already occurred, on May 23, when a team of jihadist operatives launched an (albeit failed) attack on the Indian Consulate in the western Afghan city of Herat. The timing of this attack, days before Modi was due to assume office, is extremely noteworthy and is in line with the jihadists' interest in fomenting trouble between Pakistan and India. These elements want to take advantage of the extremely problematic domestic situation in Pakistan, the NATO drawdown and now the political transition in New Delhi.

Pakistan has come a long way to reach a point where the army as an institution is no longer able to derail the civilian government's efforts to normalize ties with India — definitely not in the way it could during Sharif's previous stint in office. That said, Pakistan's groups of anti-India non-state actors have fragmented, growing independent of the security establishment and still enjoying support from certain quarters within the army-intelligence complex. Key among them is the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafiz Saeed, who has taken advantage of the Pakistani public's strong tilt towards the right in recent decades and established a vast socio-economic empire.

Thus, not only are Pakistan-based elements seeking to carry out terrorist attacks in India as a means of torpedoing any efforts at a detente with India, but also Saeed's Jamat-ud-Dawa and the Difa-i-Pakistan Council coalition group it has formed with like-minded entities are limiting the extent to which Sharif can move the peace process forward. These far-right forces feed off of the rhetoric and behavior of their counterparts in India and vice versa.  

While Pakistani democracy is still nascent and Islamists dominate the right, India's political right operates within a strong secular democratic national context. That said, the Indian right adheres to a strong anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistani ideology, which is reinforced when Indian Islamist militants with a support base in Pakistan stage attacks. Moreover, Modi has yet to settle down in his new job, especially as he has catapulted from a regional to a national leader. He has his own hawks, especially within the right-wing nationalist Hindu social movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which serves as the core of his party's support base and would not want him to be too conciliatory toward Pakistan. This would explain his response to Sharif's invitation — asking the Pakistani prime minister to join the region's other leaders at his inauguration. Despite their domestic mandates, Sharif and Modi will have to tread cautiously on the road to normalization.

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