Despite the recent tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours, who engaged in an aerial dogfight in February, Imran Khan has welcomed his Indian counterpart’s landslide election win. But Pakistani commentators are sceptical about Modi’s willingness to seek sustained peace, citing his aggressive campaign rhetoric

by Prateek Joshi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will begin his second term on May 30 after his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured an expanded majority in the lower house of parliament by winning 303 out of 542 seats.

If the election was a referendum on Modi’s leadership, he has emerged with a powerful new mandate: both for his domestic brand of Hindu nationalism and his muscular foreign policy, particularly as it relates to neighbouring Pakistan.

Indeed, India’s relationship with Pakistan became one of the defining issues of the campaign after the February 14 suicide bombing attack in Pulwama in the Kashmir Valley, which killed 40 Indian security personnel.

The attack was carried out by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and, in retaliation, Indian fighter jets carried out air strikes on the town of Balakot in Pakistani territory. Pakistan responded by shooting down an Indian jet but returned the captured pilot in a conciliatory gesture.

Despite this recent escalation of military tensions, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan welcomed the result of the Indian election, tweeting: “Look forward to working with him for peace, progress and prosperity in South Asia.

Modi has demonstrated a willingness to take direct, decisive action in response to proxy attacks, both with cross-border strikes in 2016 and the more recent strikes on Balakot. The message is clear: separate to any Indian military operations against militants in Kashmir, attacks against Indian targets will be met with conventional retaliation inside Pakistani territory.

Nonetheless, deescalation was swift, in part thanks to Washington’s involvement, as US dependence on Pakistan to help resolve the Afghan conflict necessitated a path of engagement rather than one of armed conflict.

However, Pakistani commentators have expressed doubts about Modi’s willingness to seek sustained peace, citing his aggressive campaign rhetoric.

“Modi’s re-election will be projected as a vindication of his belligerent policy towards Pakistan,” columnist Zahid Hussain wrote in the English-language newspaper Dawn, adding that Khan’s hope for easier dealings with a victorious “right-wing Indian government under Modi has rightly drawn huge scepticism”.

Sherry Rehman, a Pakistani senator and opposition leader, tweeted that the likely BJP landslide “will mean a tougher neighbourhood for Pakistan. The new BJP’s mandate … is extremism, exclusion”.

Scepticism aside, there are indications that both Indian and Pakistan are pursuing greater engagement. Pakistan has reportedly considered appointing a national security adviser to revive back channel talks with India. Furthermore, Sohail Mehmood was recently appointed foreign secretary, having served as the high commissioner to India.

Equally, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj conducted an informal dialogue with her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Ministers meeting in May, a gesture which is being dubbed as the softening of India’s stance.

Modi’s government may be willing to resume direct dialogue with Pakistan but will in return be seeking guarantees that attacks in Kashmir and on Indian targets be curbed. After Modi visited Lahore in December 2015 to meet with then-Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, an Indian Air Force base was attacked the following month. Memories of this failed outreach may mean New Delhi treads carefully this time around.

Modi’s government will also draw confidence from its success in persuading China – a staunch ally of Pakistan – to agree to JeM founder Masood Azhar being listed as a global terrorist by the UN Security Council. Beijing had previously blocked New Delhi’s efforts in this regard.

Most importantly, what remains to be seen is the nature of dialogue with respect to the Kashmir issue, which has been the sole sticking point in the bilateral relationship. The Pakistani side has kept any peace process conditional on resolution of the Kashmir issue, which it terms as a disputed territory whose fate is yet to be decided through a referendum.

The other challenge that remains to be addressed is the BJP’s electoral promise of repealing Articles 370 and 35A from the Indian constitution, which would bring Jammu and Kashmir’s status on par with other Indian states.

It seems less likely that the Pakistani side would be willing to resume the dialogue if these constitutional provisions are changed. On the other hand, New Delhi would not agree to talks unless Islamabad agrees to act on cross border terror. If at all any engagement is to resume, it is somewhere between these two extremes that a mutually agreeable space has to be found.

Prateek Joshi is a research associate with VIF India, a New-Delhi-based public policy institution