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Narendra Modi should be flexible towards Pakistan

What could become worrying for Sharif is that Modi might have little accommodation and patience for playing soft ball, with “zero tolerance towards terrorism” and Pakistan-backed terror groups, writes Razeshta Sethna.

ht view Updated: Apr 14, 2014 06:54 IST

As the BJP remains the front-runner in India’s election with prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi recast as an economic reformer, neighbouring Pakistan is waiting in the wings. For more than a decade since it first gained power, the BJP has shared a chilly relationship with Pakistan, followed by periods of rapprochement.

Pakistan is now curious about Modi’s ambiguity over lingering issues — terrorism, trade, the nuclear doctrine, Afghanistan and Kashmir. In a sense, the outcome of the election will be crucial in shaping bilateral ties after the composite dialogue took a beating.

Revising the ‘no-first-use’ policy introduced in 1999 is posturing in the run-up to the vote, pointedly warning nuclear neighbours that India has enough muscles to flex, if in a pre-emptive mood. With the unresolved Kashmir conflict and the existence of militant sanctuaries on the Af-Pak border, shifts in India’s nuclear doctrine could signal further provocation towards Pakistan and China.

If elected, Modi will be tough on terrorism and national security, but shares his interest in exploiting global economic openings with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. Fixing the economy could draw agreement on liberalising trade and visa policies, permitting viable regional trade opportunities to ease political tensions.

Pakistan’s recent backtracking on granting India the status of most favoured nation (MFN) is not a conciliatory signal, having irked Indian investors and businesses. When the Pakistani military’s strategic paradigm went through small changes last year, for the first time General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani acknowledged the main threat facing the country was internal extremism, and not India.

Self-assured hawks must note warring democracies in South Asia will fail. China and India have the world’s largest trade relationship, with trade between the two countries reaching $49.5 billion last year. This makes India hardly reliant on Pakistani exports. But what India wants will count and Modi will have little choice but to pursue confidence-building measures, if pressured by his constituents trading with Pakistan.

Not only is Modi’s leadership and bellicose personality unlike that of AB Vajpayee — a poet who travelled twice to Pakistan in his six-year prime ministerial tenure; initiated the India-Pak bus diplomacy and signed a 1999 peace declaration in Lahore — but his political trajectory has Muslims uneasy.

If his trademark anti-Muslim rhetoric and non-apologetic stance over the 2002 Gujarat riots was not enough for anti-BJP sceptics (for which he was denied a visa to the US), Modi’s aggressive accusations against Arvind Kejriwal, reprimanding him and the Congress’ AK Antony for taking a pro-Pakistan approach, remind one of his trademark inflammatory rhetoric.

With a tumultuous history, the BJP-Pakistan relationship (March 1998 to May 2004) has renewable ability for war. The increased spectre of regional terror could destabilise ties with the slightest noise.

The Pakistani Taliban are not interested in talking peace with Sharif’s chosen few and should they feel the need to derail dialogue with a hard-line nationalist Indian partner, it would put the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in the doghouse.

What could become worrying for Sharif is that Modi might have little accommodation and patience for playing soft ball, with “zero tolerance towards terrorism” and Pakistan-backed terror groups.

Will he demand that Pakistan revisit the Mumbai attacks and apprehend the planners as a prerequisite to trade ties and peace talks? Sharif wants a third-party mediator on Kashmir: Would Modi agree?

For Modi, war-mongering might not be an option as the leader of the world’s largest democracy.

The election narrative does not sum up Modi’s action plan entirely because geopolitical shifts require the BJP to change tack as it finds renewing bilateral relations testing (with new Indian nationalism) yet mandatory for economic security and global approval.

Rajmohan Gandhi used the words “healing”, “reconciliation”, and “understanding” when asked about India-Pakistan relations in Karachi this year. “For tomorrow’s sake, can we learn from yesterday?” the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi writes. Would Modi listen?

Razeshta Sethna is a journalist with the Dawn Media Group in Karachi. The views expressed by the author are personal