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With India’s Elections Out of the Way, Relations with Pakistan Could Improve

Three months ago, the world was reminded of how easily South Asia could transform into a nuclear flash-point. A terrorist attack in Indian Kashmir led nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan to the brink of a major war as the two exchanged air strikes for the first time in decades. The situation seemed poised for further escalation.

The crisis ended badly for India. Pakistan downed an Indian plane and captured its pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, embarrassing Right-Wing nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But Modi turned the debacle into a political opportunity. With his re-election campaign already in full swing, he pivoted to mobilizing hyper-nationalist fervor by focusing the narrative on the national security threat from Pakistan.

His anti-Pakistan rhetoric was noticeably popular. The jingoism it fueled forced the opposition political parties to shy away from challenging Modi’s handling of the crisis and diverted attention from the government’s mixed economic performance. With Modi now back in office, most predict doom and gloom for the India-Pakistan relationship. A somewhat more hopeful scenario, however, is not out of the question.

The Practicalities of Peace

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that only strong, nationalist governments in India and Pakistan that are seemingly uncompromising on national security issues can make peace with each other without incurring prohibitive political costs. The current political mix in India and Pakistan could be perfect for such peacemaking. An Indian government with all the right nationalist credentials has returned to power with commanding majority. In Pakistan, we are witnessing a rare moment of civil-military harmony and near complete coordination on foreign policy.

The Pakistani military is dominant in this equation, but it is led by an army chief who has been more forward-thinking than any of his predecessors on the need to mend ties with India. To be sure, peace overtures from either side don’t represent mere goodwill. Both parties have genuine incentives to be less parochial than most skeptics recognize. The perennial Pakistan dilemma brought Modi’s predecessors to see the merits of continued engagement with their western neighbor.

Persistent acrimony with Pakistan bogs India down, keeping its military and economic resources and diplomatic attention diverted from its ambition of becoming a global power. Tensions between India and Pakistan also inevitably result in redoubled Pakistani efforts to fix global attention on the human rights abuses in Kashmir. India’s inability to shrug off periodic criticism of its Kashmir policy is one major reason the world has shied away from backing its desire to acquire a permanent U.N. Security Council seat. Indian leaders can rightly claim that their past efforts to engage Pakistan constructively have been cut short by terrorist attacks blamed on Pakistan-based militants or Pakistani state actions.

Etched in India’s memory is Pakistan’s military incursion in Kargil in 1999, virtually simultaneous with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s historic goodwill trip to Lahore to bolster ties. Modi, too, started his first term in office with outreach to Pakistan but pulled back in the wake of a terrorist attack on an Indian air force base in Pathankot. That said, disengaging with Pakistan hasn’t delivered, either. As Modi swung from a pro-engagement stance after taking office in 2014 to a strategy of isolating Pakistan diplomatically, he quickly realized the impracticality of it.

If anything, his effort energized Pakistan’s foreign policy machinery to double down on its relationship with China and diversify its options, notably by opening up to traditionally pro-India countries like Russia. Pakistan also managed to keep Kashmir in the news, with India receiving uncharacteristically strong periodic censure from international rights groups for its heavy handedness in Kashmir. For Pakistan, the compulsion to engage India is even greater. Pakistan’s traditional fixation on the threat from India as the country’s primary challenge ensured lopsided emphasis on hard security. A focused investment in human capital has never found its rightful place at the center of the national discourse.

Give Statesmanship a Chance

The misplaced policies of the past in support of anti-India militants continue to bring universal condemnation in the wake of any terrorist attacks in India, even though Islamabad claims to have ended the policy. At the same time, Pakistan’s longstanding quest to maintain a semblance of parity with India is failing. The India-Pakistan power differential has grown decisively in New Delhi’s favor over the past decade; no realistic projection suggests that Pakistan can keep up without running its coffers dry. To correct the imbalance, Pakistan needs a development-centric approach that focuses on ensuring sustained macroeconomic growth.

Among other domestic reforms, this requires Pakistan to unlock its geographic potential by transforming into the trade and transit hub for South and Central Asia. Regional economic integration is a necessary prerequisite, and this can’t happen without an improved relationship with India. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, given the currently abysmal state of the Indo-Pakistani relationship, the next few months may be an opportune time for the traditional rivals to attempt to improve ties in line with their mutual strategic compulsion. India and Pakistan’s last and most serious attempt at rapprochement occurred between 2003 and 2007.

Those efforts came from similarly disposed governments immediately after a major military crisis that lasted 10 months. Breaking out of the traditional mold at the time took an act of incredible statesmanship on the part of the Indian and Pakistani leaders. It’ll require the same now. Modi may have missed a chance for talks by not inviting his Pakistani counterpart to attend his swearing-in ceremony last week. The two sides need to look for another opportunity to reinitiate bilateral dialogue, which could greatly benefit from some serious encouragement from Washington.

Dr. Moeed Yusuf is the Associate Vice President of the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, DC. Dr. Yusuf has been engaged in expanding USIP’s work on Pakistan and South Asia since 2010. His current research focuses on youth and democratic institutions in Pakistan, policy options to mitigate militancy in South Asia, and U.S. role in South Asian crisis management. Yusuf’s latest book, “Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia” (Stanford University Press, May 2018), offers an innovative theory of brokered bargaining to better understand and solve regional nuclear crises.