A fresh start?

Published June 10, 2024

AS Narendra Modi returns to the prime ministerial seat in New Delhi, it would be interesting to see what changes — if any — he makes to the Pakistan file, considering India’s altered internal political calculus. A decade of BJP rule has resulted in rock-bottom relations with Pakistan; in 2019, both states came close to the brink of conflict due to India’s Balakot misadventure, while the scrapping of held Kashmir’s limited autonomy later that year scuttled any chances of peace. The BJP and RSS, the party’s ideological parent, have no love lost for Pakistan; both before the Indian elections and during the campaign, they targeted this country using shrill nationalistic tropes to appeal to the Hindu hard right. That strategy has failed, as India’s final election tally shows, and Mr Modi now needs the help of coalition partners who do not necessarily support the Sangh’s loathing of Pakistan. For example, Nitish Kumar, the ex-chief minister of Bihar and now a crucial BJP ally, has visited Pakistan in the past and once talked of building bridges. Will this change Mr Modi’s hawkish tone towards Pakistan?

Many diplomatic observers are of the view that the status quo will continue where Pakistan-India relations are concerned: neither war nor peace. For its part, the Foreign Office has said it hopes India will create a “conducive environment … for peace and dialogue”. After a decade of acrimony and mistrust, it is natural to tread carefully. But the ball is in India’s court. If Mr Modi softens his rhetoric and extends the hand of friendship, Pakistan should respond. For starters, full diplomatic relations should be restored, and the visa process — particularly for Pakistanis wanting to visit relations in India, and vice versa — should be made less torturous. Both prime ministers could also meet at the next SCO summit. Backchannel and Track II diplomacy can be revived, even if at this juncture these are just talks about talks. While Pakistan should stick to its principled stand of supporting the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination, other subjects can also be discussed — if India loosens its rigid stance. Of course, the new Modi government will have a tough time walking back its anti-Pakistan rhetoric. But for peace to prevail in South Asia, bold steps will need to be taken, in the spirit of statesmanship.

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2024

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