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Can India-Pakistan Relations Enter a "New Era" under Prime Minister Modi?

Even without the extreme danger that terrorism poses to both countries, Indo-Pak engagement makes sense. A shared border, common history and familiar culture means India and Pakistan will each benefit from the absence of hostility. Since they gained their respective independence from Britain in 1947, war has broken out a number of times. At other moments, they came perilously close to war.

Nuclear-armed neighbors with openly suspicious relations make for great instability in South Asia. From time to time, each country has tried to change the direction of history and come to an understanding for the sake of a better future. Unfortunately, despite periodic engagement, these attempts have not resulted in a real change for the better. "Never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" has become the hallmark of the subcontinent's peace-building efforts.

narendra modi

Political turnover in New Delhi with the installation of a National Democratic Alliance under the newly-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi has again led to expectations of rapprochement with Islamabad. There are several reasons for this.

First, Modi is seen to be primarily focused on improving India’s economy. A higher rate of growth, expanded trade, improved infrastructure, and better governance are goals the new prime minister has set to move India forward. Peace in his neighborhood would make it possible to provide laser-like focus on the economy.

Second, the Bharatya Janata Party (BJP), which is headed by Mr. Modi, has a record of productive engagement with the current Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. In fact, the last time that an Indian prime minister traveled to Pakistan was under the Sharif tenure in February 1999. That visit by Prime Minister and BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee led to the signing and ratification of the Lahore Declaration which was intended to transform the India-Pakistan relationship.

Under the terms of the treaty, the two countries agreed to avoid accidental and unauthorized operational use of nuclear weapons. The Lahore Declaration pledged that the two countries would avoid a nuclear arms race as well as both non-conventional and conventional conflicts.

The very presence of Mr. Vajpayee in Lahore and the warmth of his reception, along with the positive public response to the Lahore Declaration, signaled a major breakthrough. Finally, there seemed to be hope that the relationship could become a normal productive one with trade, travel, and political reconciliation between the two countries.

That expectation was dramatically destroyed by the Kargil War of May 1999 when the Pakistani military undertook an operation to overthrow Indian control from parts of the disputed Kashmir region. The Pakistan military and its surrogates managed to dissipate the goodwill over a two-month war in the high mountains of Kashmir. Fears of nuclear conflict drew in the U.S. at Pakistan's request. While the armies moved back into previously held positions, the political leaders never recovered their faith in or stewardship of a better Indo-Pak future.

Third, the Lahore Declaration created a framework for formalized confidence building via a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed on 21 February 1999. Aimed at the creation of real peace and security, it affirmed that both governments subscribed to the principles and purposes of the UN Charter and were committed to implementing the Simla Agreement, both codes for breaking the logjam of Kashmir. They pledged to resolve the issue. Both condemned terrorism, allowing for further meetings through official diplomatic channels.

The Kargil War has long cast a negative shadow. Other events such as the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008 was planned in Pakistan by the Lashkar-e-Taiba and lasted four days, killing 164 people and wounding 308. Both these events made normalization impossible, as the onus for action passed from the political leadership to the Pakistani military in the case of Kargil and the terror espousing domestic groups aligned with Pakistani intelligence in the Mumbai case.

Will the election of another BJP leader riding on a huge mandate provide the critical political will which is a prerequisite for improved India-Pakistan ties? Mr. Modi's agenda of rapid economic growth, infrastructure development, trade, and investment should result in a desire to reduce tensions with Pakistan. The previous BJP opening by Prime Minister Vajpayee with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is a good precedent.

The apparent cordiality of the meeting of the two prime ministers during the recent Modi inauguration ceremonies is a welcome sign of Indian outreach. In return, the Pakistani leader will need the cooperation of his military and intelligence services to rein in the anti-Indian elements that have long been nurtured as 'Plan B' against India.

Economic and security challenges in Pakistan make normalization with India a priority. Nawaz Sharif needs respite from external problems in order to bring homegrown terrorism under control and rescue Pakistan.

Most of the major areas of cooperation are ripe for progress. Trade, energy cooperation, and joint infrastructure development should be included in the first tranche of renewed cooperation. The second tranche could cover areas of greater sensitivity such as the Sir Creek dispute, water sharing issues and dispersal of forces from Siachin in the high mountains. Eventually, open borders in Kashmir, withdrawal of paramilitary forces, and greater civilian movement may be possible. However, it is this last part that creates opportunities for spoilers—terrorists and their enablers—to derail progress in normalization.

In the final analysis, another 'new era' of better India-Pakistan relations requires stronger commitment from a weak Nawaz Sharif that he can control the security establishment in Pakistan. At the same time, a strong Narendra Modi has to find a way not to give up on the entire relationship if the spoilers unleash terror. Only then can both countries actually make a real beginning.

Shirin Tahir-Kheli is Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute and oversaw Indo-Pak relations during her stint in senior USG positions. She headed up the BALUSA Group focused on Track II efforts for India-Pakistan normalization.

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