The recent Indian elections were keenly observed in neighboring Pakistan. In May 2013, Pakistan had overwhelmingly voted for Nawaz Sharif, the head of the right-wing Pakistan Muslim League (P.M.L.) to become the country's prime minister for a third term while the Indians also voted for a controversial Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), to lead the world's largest democracy. What does a change of guards both in India and Pakistan mean for regional peace in South Asia where the two nuclear armed nations have fought at least three wars?
French journalist Aymeric Janier interviewed me to analyze the future of India-Pakistan relations in the aftermath of the recent Indian elections. Excerpts:
In an unexpected move, the new Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his oath-taking ceremony, on Monday, in Delhi. How do you interpret this initiative ?
Narendra Modi has won a historic mandate. The B.J.P. wanted to mark this event with fanfare. It sent invitations to the heads of all neighboring states and governments. Pakistan is too important for India to ignore while extending such invitations to the rest of its neighboring countries. Avoiding Pakistan would have in itself created a big story in the media and immediately depicted Modi as an anti-Pakistan leader.
Can Modi, who regularly presents himself as a "Hindu nationalist," fulfill the hope of a rapprochement with Pakistan?
Historically, the B.J.P. has had better relations with Pakistan. However, this is not the 1990s when the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, also from the B.J.P, visited Lahore and signed the Lahore Declaration with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Today, India and Pakistan have serious tensions on regional security issues. India wants Pakistan to be more transparent in terms of dealing with the issue of Islamic terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) which was blamed for the Mumbai attacks. The Indian people would expect Modi to guard their country from future terrorist attacks such as the one in Mumbai. On the other hand, Pakistan, unlike the 1990s, is today more nervous and insecure about India's increasing role in Afghanistan or its alleged support for the Baloch separatists nationalists in Balochistan province. Both countries deny each other's allegations which shows they are not willing to make any concessions on these critical topics that have generated so much distrust among the two nations.
In your opinion, will Modi behave as a pragmatist or as an ideologue ?
Some people say Modi was elected because of his Hindu nationalist rhetoric while others believe his good economic policies as the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat contributed to his rise. Even if Modi focuses purely on India's economic growth, relations with Pakistan will still influence the pace of Indian economic progress. Military tensions with Pakistan will distract India from economic headway and can derail the likes of "India Shining" projects. Therefore, Modi will be required to work to improve relations with Pakistan. In case Pakistan continues to use its proxies, such as the LeT or the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan to undermine Indian influence and interests, Modi will possibly resort to an immediate and intense response in order not to allow the security issues to hamper India's economic growth.
Is a reconciliation, or at least a thaw, between Delhi and Islamabad possible in the near future? If not, what are the main obstacles that still threaten the peace process ?
Resolving India-Pakistan tensions requires a lot more than mere statements or meetings between the prime ministers of the two countries. Unfortunately, India and Pakistan are still unwilling to have a frank conversation on several outstanding issues, such as Kashmir and Pakistan-sponsored infiltration inside India. Of course, Pakistanis describe Kashmir as the biggest unresolved issue and seeks more international focus on it whereas the Indians believe Pakistan's support for terrorist groups in Kashmir is the biggest obstacle for normalization and improvement of ties between the two countries. Their role and influence in Afghanistan has also become one topic on which India and Pakistan will ultimately have to hold talks in a more professional level rather than mere assertion of allegations and counter-allegations against each other. As long as they look at each other's role in Afghanistan suspiciously, they cannot fully build confidence among themselves.
How do you think the hardliners in both countries -- LeT in Pakistan, B.J.P. hawks in India -- might react to Modi's policy of engagement ?
There is pressure on both sides. While the Pakistan army has had problems with peace talks with India since the inception, it was easier to talk to someone like former Prime Minister Vajpayee although he too came from the B.J.P. Pakistan proudly describes itself as the (self-proclaimed) spokesman of the Muslims of the world. It, as an unwritten state policy, champions the cause of Muslims wherever they they live. In that case, the army finds it easy to oppose talks with an Indian prime minister who is accused of sponsoring the killing of thousands of "Muslim brothers." Prime Minister Sharif will also have it very hard because it is the Pakistan army, not the prime minister, that controls the country's India policy. If any Pakistani prime minister can review the army's India policy, he can also change Pakistan's future direction.
Is Nawaz Sharif really in a position to rise against Pakistan's "Deep State" (i.e. the nebulous alliance between the Inter-Services Intelligence, the army and the jihadists)?
Nawaz Sharif does have the political majority to rise against the "Deep State" (the anti-India military establishment) but he is also aware of the heavy cost he will have to pay for annoying the army. That price could simply cost him his job. In spite of having the public support to make peace, Sharif lacks the institutional backing of the army to improve relations with India or take action against the Jihadist groups. There are no indications about any recent change of perception and attitude in the Pakistani military toward India.
This interview was originally published on May 30 in French on http://janieraymeric.wix.com