Pakistan's religious fanatics protesting against India's air strikes in Balakot

Nuclear-armed neighbours 'cannot keep tensions high indefinitely'. India and Pakistan have not been on speaking terms since February, when Indian warplanes flew into Pakistani airspace to strike what India said is a militant training camp

by Farhan Bokhari

ISLAMABAD -- As India counts down until May 23, when results of its latest elections are to be announced, the country's next-door neighbour, Pakistan, is looking for signs that tensions along a shared border in Kashmir will either ease or bring the nuclear-armed neighbours into greater conflict.

Western diplomats say Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been using relations with Pakistan as a vote-getting tool. "Modi has used his confrontational approach to Pakistan to drum up public support," a Western official in Islamabad told the Nikkei Asian Review on condition of anonymity. "The entire emphasis of [Modi's] message has been how a tough man like him on Pakistan deserves to be [returned as prime minister]."

Tensions between the South Asian countries escalated in February, when India attacked a location in northern Pakistan that India's government has called a training camp for militants. Pakistan responded within 24 hours, shooting down two Indian warplanes and capturing an Indian Air Force pilot.

The skirmish followed a mid-February terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed at least 40 Indian soldiers. Responsibility for the attack was later claimed by Jaish e Mohammad or JeM, a Pakistan-based Islamic militant group led by Masood Azhar, a cleric with a history of prompting his followers to join a separatist insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Pakistan also controls a part of Kashmir, while a smaller slice of the mountainous state is the domain of China. Pakistan and India have fought three major wars and many skirmishes over Kashmir since they became independent of British rule in 1947.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a widely respected Pakistani commentator on security and national affairs, said Pakistan cannot afford to be complacent if Modi returns as prime minister. "If Narendra Modi gets reelected," Rizvi said, "there is a chance that he may continue to remain tough [on Pakistan]. It's possible that tensions in Kashmir will remain high."

Since the February attack, Pakistani army troops who face their Indian counterparts along a Kashmiri border have reported almost daily exchanges of fire. At the same time, India has repeatedly said Pakistan continues to support a long-running separatist insurgency in India-controlled Kashmir that arms and trains militants.

Pakistan has just as often refuted these charges, saying India's government has been unnerved by frequent public protests in Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim corner of the globe.

"There are more than 700,000 Indian troops deployed in Kashmir, and India is still unable to take charge of the territory," a Pakistani foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to journalists. "India is refusing to see a very obvious point, which is that there is a popular uprising in Kashmir which cannot be controlled by force."

Rizvi said events on the ground in Indian Kashmir could easily set off a disastrous chain reaction. "The consequences of a military escalation can be dangerous," he said. "There is always a risk of the situation spinning out of control."

Other analysts say Modi is likely to soften his stance on Pakistan after the elections. "I think we should be open to a period of cooling-off between India and Pakistan," said Ghazi Salahuddin, a respected Pakistani columnist for the mass circulation The News newspaper.