Newly inaugurated Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) overwhelming electoral victory earlier this month. The invitation surprised observers who had expected Modi, based on his pointed campaign rhetoric and his controversial governorship of Gujarat during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots, to lead off with a wary rather than conciliatory stance on Pakistan. This rare meeting between the prime ministers sheds light not only on the emerging contours of Modi’s foreign policy, but also on the state of Pakistan’s still contentious civil-military dynamics.
Tuesday’s meeting-part of a wider invitation to SAARC leaders on the sidelines of Modi’s inauguration-focused on two issues that were central to Modi’s campaign promises and future governance: terrorism and trade. On terrorism, Modi pressed his counterpart to fulfill Pakistan’s counterterrorism obligations, to prevent attacks on India by groups emanating from Pakistan, and to expedite the trial of suspects linked to the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Regarding trade, both parties agreed to make progress toward trade normalization, with the foreign secretaries agreeing to “meet soon” to carry forward the bilateral economic agenda. More symbolic than substantive, the meeting does suggest that Modi may be purposeful in reaching out to Pakistan.
The lead up and reaction to this meeting in Pakistan also highlights the tenuous nature of Pakistan’s civil-military relations, and the risk that domestic elements opposed to normalization with India- including perhaps the military itself – may play the role of spoilers should the civilian government outpace the military. It is clear, for example, that hardline elements within Pakistan opposed the meeting. Before the meeting, Hafiz Saeed, head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (the erstwhile Lashkar-e-Taiba), used his Twitter account to caution the prime minister against “appeasing India.” Following the meeting, Saeed rebuked Sharif’s “silence” on “Kashmir [and the] rights of Muslims” while in India. Admittedly, the source of last week’s attack on the Indian diplomatic mission in Herat remains undetermined, but in the immediate aftermath some analysts speculated it was an attempt by the LeT or other likeminded groups to disrupt India-Pakistan normalization. Given these public pressures, Pakistan’s civilian leaders may understandably be wary of pressing forward too quickly.
Policymakers would do well to watch two key dynamics over the coming months to see whether this initial handshake translates into meaningful rapprochement. First, whether Pakistan will extend India Most Favored Nation (MFN) status, now labeled Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA), remains in doubt. Pakistan suspended approval at the eleventh hour in April, and there have been indications the Pakistan military was behind the move. If Sharif is able to move NDMA forward over the next few months, it would suggest leaders in both India and Pakistan are willing to lend political capital to the effort. Second, Modi’s balancing of different impulses-conciliatory and hawkish-in Indian foreign policy is to be determined. With his invite to Sharif, Modi has taken a notably conciliatory approach to Pakistan. At the same time, his appointment Ajit Doval-a perceived hawk on Pakistan-to the post of National Security Advisor (NSA) has been a source of anxiety in some circles. Some Pakistanis and Indians are wary that Doval might adopt a more aggressive posture towards Pakistan.
It is too soon to predict the arc of India-Pakistan relations under Modi’s and Sharif’s respective leadership. Already there have been surprises: Modi’s invitation and Sharif’s acceptance. Two prime ministers shook hands, but ultimately the fundamental asymmetry remains: Modi is the undisputed arbiter of India’s Pakistan policy; Sharif, while occupying the senior civilian role, must nonetheless contend with the interests and prerogative of Pakistan’s powerful military.
Prakashkiran Pawar and Muhammad Cheema are currently visiting fellows with Stimson’s Environmental Security program. Dr. Pawar is an Associate Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, India. Dr. Cheema is an Assistant Professor at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan. They offer their thoughts on the meeting and on prospects for India-Pakistan rapprochement here:
It is always good for the two neighboring countries, equipped with weapons of mass destruction, to sit together and try to resolve their outstanding issues like Kashmir, Water, Terrorism and Trade. But it is too early to speculate a great breakthrough in solving these issues with single handshake. These issues can be solved only through dialogue and solutions acceptable to both countries. The recent goodwill gesture by both prime ministers can be considered as a first raindrop. As Himalayan glaciers are melting due to climate change, the hostile relationships can also be melted through mind change. Therefore, this is the time to take such bold initiatives-but at the same time, both prime ministers should have an eye on extremist elements on both sides of borders. These elements can spoil efforts of converting this hand shake to meaningful rapprochement.
Regarding India-Pakistan relations, the most promising solutions lie outside the case under consideration and within a broader approach. Greater cooperation, starting with trade, may open doors for many pressing issues like dwindling water resources, the threat of climate change, and agriculture-dependent economies. Irrespective of what type of role the new prime minister or National Security Adviser (NSA), Mr. Ajit Doval, adopts, Indian intellectuals and the public at large are keenly observing Pakistan’s future role in India-Pakistan dynamics and challenges. With the same philosophy, the NSA is expected to scrutinize Pakistan’s role exhaustively. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is well known for its path breaking solutions and out of the box thinking. Compared to coalition led party governments of the past, a stable and independent decision making BJP government is expected to perform better. International expectations are very high, and at the same time there is tremendous domestic pressure on the government to perform well. Given the bitter fact that India-Pakistan normalization has been a slow process, without making any haste, both governments should take small and formidable progressive steps over timely roadmap.