Guest analyst Dr. Kiran Hassan discusses how India’s general election comes at a pivotal time in South Asia. As the largest democracy voted, many wondered what Narendra Modi’s foreign policy might be towards archrival Pakistan once elected as the next prime minister of India.
Just days before his winning, Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi was quoted as saying India is fighting a war on poverty in South Asia with Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stressed cooperation – not confrontation – in South Asia at Pakistan’s Envoys Conference, focused on the Middle East.
This recent air of optimism expressed by both leaders left many dizzy with anticipation. But before both governments decide to pursue a peaceful path, they will have to deal with the endemic political problems which have presided over peace initiatives since 1947.
Sharif keen to promote Pakistani trade
Pakistan’s political landscape is simple. If Nawaz Sharif wants to improve ties with India, he will only succeed if he is backed by Pakistan’s powerful military.
Sharif is keen on Pakistan trading with its neighbours, especially India. He advocated this throughout his election campaign and has continued to pursue related initiatives after taking office. His younger brother, Punjab’s chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, was also seen making a strong pitch for the same reason during his visit to India in December 2013.
Perceived favourably by New Delhi, most Indians recall Nawaz Sharif for signing the Lahore Treaty with the Vajpayee government in 1999, even after both countries declared themselves nuclear-armed in 1998. According to the treaty, the two Prime Ministers signed their shared vision of peace and stability between their countries and of progress and prosperity for their peoples.
Sharif still maintains that his efforts towards improving ties with India in 1999 were undermined by the then-COAS, General Musharraf who without consulting him, went for war with India and later imposed a military coup which ousted him from power.
Presently enjoying parliamentary majority, while Nawaz Sharif is impatient for trade rapprochement with India, he would need to build larger political consensus at home and bring major key stakeholders – especially the Pakistani military— on board to ensure a sustainable trade policy with India.
Moreover, known to have a history of conflicts with previous military chiefs, Nawaz Sharif faces a test: How will he sway the military’s attention towards Indian trade especially when the Indian government is not likely to pursue other parts of the composite dialogue?
Modi fuzzy on approach with Pakistan
On the other side, India’s problems are different. Within South Asia, Indian politics have been exemplary for being both democratic and inclusive. With the majority in parliament, Modi may not have to face the challenge of policy paralysis. But according to renowned Academics on Indian Politics, Modi is expected to face some other political challenges which may affect his performance as a prime minister.
Modi is unlikely to enjoy parliamentary clout because of his inability to share the spotlight, he demonstrates fuzziness along policy lines – if judged by his party’s manifesto – and arrives at the job with blind confidence because he has jolted the age-old Indian secular tradition.
However, according to Rahul Roy Chaudhury (Senior Fellow for South Asia at IISS), if the Pakistan government approves the non-discriminatory market access to India (NDMA), this could actually give Modi an economic incentive for outreach towards Pakistan.
With the discussed challenges, Modi will perhaps attain hurdles towards his trade endeavours towards Pakistan. But even if Modi is able to sell the Pakistan trade card and justify it to his parliament, it remains to be seen if he will show the same responsibility towards managing the territorial and water issues which are longstanding points of contention between the two countries.
Moreover, while articulate political narrator Modi is likely to engage Pakistan as a trading partner, how will he spoon his promise of saving India from the alleged “Pakistan terror threat” that he has used extensively throughout his election campaign and his political career? Both his fellow parliamentarians and his massive vote bank will expect him to deliver on this solemn commitment – where (according to him) the outgoing Congress Party failed.
Conclusively, the desired trade policy has a better chance of success if Nawaz Sharif packages his trade ambition with the hope of kick-starting other parts of the composite dialogue and if Modi mellows down on his pre-election aggressive narratives towards Pakistan – an approach which is required in engaging new trade partners.
Unless both leaders show a degree of political maturity, the vulnerable trade endeavour has a chance of being diverted by domestic hiccups even before it materializes.
Dr. Kiran Hassan works at the South Asia programme at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. She received her PhD from the School of Advanced Studies, University of London.