Pakistan Doesn’t Want Modi to Win
A BJP victory in India’s upcoming election could spell more trouble for the relationship.
It was not particularly surprising when India boycotted the Pakistan Day celebrations at the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi last weekend. Just weeks before, an extraordinary duel in the air above disputed Kashmir brought the two sides unthinkably close to war.
The wounds from the skirmish have yet to heal. Pakistan has vacated border villages. Defense systems remain on high alert as the two countries continue to fire artillery across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir. Meanwhile, Pakistan and India’s nuclear arsenals—which together total roughly 300 warheads—are still pointed right at each other.
Since 2015, both states have avoided full-on conflict, partly by absorbing smaller but still bloody skirmishes along the Line of Control. But an active insurrection in Indian-occupied Kashmir has stoked cross-border tensions and provoked a heavy-handed crackdown by the Indian state. Islamabad, meanwhile, has urged continued talks and launched its own sweep of arrests and asset seizures against militant organizations.
It is unlikely that tensions between the two countries will ease anytime soon. In two weeks, India will begin holding general elections—and in them, standing up to Pakistan is an easy sell. The vote, which will see 900 million Indians eligible to go to the polls, will be a referendum on incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Indian National Congress party, which won just 44 seats in 2014’s national vote compared to the 282 taken by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is looking to make a national comeback. It has won several recent state elections thanks to growing frustration with a poor jobs market and an underperforming agricultural sector.
In Pakistan, the outcome of the vote could potentially signal the Indian public’s interest in bilateral engagement and the possibility of resuming a comprehensive dialogue.
In the run-up to the election, Modi has painted Pakistan less as a strategic opponent and more as a threat to civilization. He has played to nationalist sentiment, threatening to teach Pakistan a lesson including by diverting water away from the water-insecure nation. And in September, India held what a major newspaper called a “mega celebration” to mark two years since Indian soldiers may have crossed the Line of Control to attack terrorist safe havens. (Pakistan denies that the soldiers were in Pakistani territory.)
Modi’s muscle flexing may be an attempt to distract from economic discontent at home and discredit Indian opposition parties. The chief minister in Gujarat, a BJP stronghold, recently suggested that “Diwali celebrations would start in Pakistan” if Congress did well in the polls. Meanwhile, the Congress Party has questioned the BJP’s account of the February 26 airstrike and has accused Modi of trying to politicize the skirmish. The last Congress prime minister, Manmohan Singh, recently suggested that the two countries should focus less on war and more on economic development and tackling shared challenges, including poverty.
The India-Pakistan equation has changed considerably since the days of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was the only figure from the BJP to hold the highest office before Modi. Vajpayee, who died in August 2018, made unprecedented diplomatic breakthroughs with Pakistan, including launching a Delhi-Lahore bus service, and bringing actors, writers, and cricket players with him when he traveled to Lahore. On the announcement of his death, a spokesperson for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted an Urdu couplet that the former Indian prime minister had recited on that visit in 1999. It began with the words “I won’t allow another war.
The difference between today’s India and yesterday’s is palpable. Politicians and pundits stoke nationalism by selling low-intensity conflict with Pakistan as an absorbable short-term cost. The media, in particular, profits from cross-border violence by finding creative new ways to win viewers. In turn, public opinion has shifted. According to Pew, whereas 54 percent of Indians held very unfavorable views of Pakistan in 2013, 64 percent did by 2017.
Domestically, there are few forces pushing for a course correction. The two countries have little in the way of cross-border trade. Visas are notoriously hard to come by. And there are decades of ill feeling on both ends. Last summer, India’s Aligarh Muslim University was stormed by an armed group of Hindu nationalists who demanded that a portrait of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, which had been hanging in the university for 80 years, be taken down. This month, an Indian court acquitted four men accused of bombing a train linking India and Pakistan in 2007. The attack was allegedly planned by a former member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a radical Hindu nationalist group, and killed 68 people, at least 43 of whom were Pakistanis. In Pakistan, meanwhile, progress has stalled in the trials of those accused of involvement in the 12 coordinated attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, embittering many Indians.
It is dangerous, though, to let relations between India and Pakistan continue to fester. So long as the two countries lack institutionalized engagement, dust-ups can easily escalate. It is somewhat surprising that the aerial dogfight in February didn’t lead to further fallout. At the peak of the crisis, Indian and Pakistani television anchors both dressed in military uniforms as they presented the news; an Indian newscaster even hosted his entire segment while holding a toy gun.
At some point, both sides will realize that they acutely need to update their crisis-management tools. Ideally, this would include the institutionalization of an effective back channel between the two governments; effective communication between the two countries’ national security advisors saved the relationship from collapsing after a terrorist attack on India’s Pathankot airbase in 2016.
Practically speaking, a repair in India-Pakistan relations is unlikely until India is on the other side of its elections. And even then, the prospects aren’t good. If Modi wins, his government, buoyed by the high of an election victory, may decide to notch up tensions even further. This may well take the form of a new campaign in Kashmir to quell anti-state sentiment. And should the BJP’s seat share go down, it is just as likely to use Pakistan as a dog whistle to polarize public opinion as the party looks to regain lost ground.
Either way, the next month and a half is likely to bring more uncertainty for a region that is no stranger to brinkmanship.