Will India’s Modi break the ice with Pakistan in his third term?

It’s unlikely. India has little incentive to seek to improve ties with Pakistan at the moment, say analysts.

Narendra Modi took oath on June 9 to become India's prime minister for third consecutive term. [Rajat Gupta/EPA]
Narendra Modi took oath on June 9 to become India's prime minister for third consecutive term [Rajat Gupta/EPA]

Islamabad, Pakistan –  As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in for a third time as his country’s leader on June 9, seven counterparts from neighbouring nations joined a very select audience in marking the moment.

The setting — a summer evening, with an orangish dusk sky, and handpicked leaders from the region in attendance — carried echoes of Modi’s first oath-taking ceremony as India’s premier in 2014, which was repeated in 2019.

But there was one big difference from 2014: Missing from the lineup of visiting leaders was the prime minister of Pakistan.

A decade ago, images of Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif clasping Modi’s hands during his visit to attend the swearing-in event signalled a fresh hope for long-tortured India-Pakistan relations — hope that subsequent setbacks to ties have all but extinguished. Now, as Modi begins his third term in office, with a sharply reduced mandate that has left him dependent on coalition allies to stay in power, analysts expect the Indian leader to pursue a tough posture towards Pakistan, with little incentive to seek any easing in tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

“Modi will reach out to regional neighbours, all of whom were invited to his swearing-in.  But not Pakistan,” said Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations, United States and the United Kingdom. “His government is likely to continue its hard line towards Pakistan with which he has shown no interest to engage for the past five years. This is unlikely to change.”

And early signs appear to vindicate Lodhi’s assessment.

A message and an attack

On the very day that Modi took oath, at least nine people were killed and more than 30 injured when a bus carrying Hindu pilgrims in the Reasi district of Indian-administered Kashmir fell in a gorge after it was targeted by gunmen.

This was followed by three more incidents within a week in different areas of Indian-administered Kashmir in which security forces engaged with attackers, killing three while seven security personnel were injured.

Indian security agencies have blamed Pakistani involvement. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mumtaz Zahra Baloch rejected the allegations on Thursday, and accused Indian authorities of a “habit of making such irresponsible statements”.

“No one takes these allegations seriously,” Baloch said.

Still, a day after the attack in Reasi, former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif tried to rekindle his past bonhomie with Modi.

“My warm felicitations to Modi Ji (@narendramodi) on assuming office for the third time. Your party’s success in recent elections reflects the confidence of the people in your leadership. Let us replace hate with hope and seize the opportunity to shape the destiny of the two billion people of South Asia,” the three-time prime minister, and currently a member of the Pakistani parliament, wrote on June 10.

The Indian premier, too, responded in kind, acknowledging the message by his former counterpart.

“Appreciate your message @NawazSharifMNS. The people of India have always stood for peace, security and progressive ideas. Advancing the well-being and security of our people shall always remain our priority,” he wrote on X.

By contrast, the congratulatory message from Pakistan’s current prime minister, Nawaz’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, was far more restrained.

“Felicitations to @narendramodi on taking oath as the Prime Minister of India,” Sharif wrote from his account.

Security concerns

After the attack in Reasi on June 9, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah — widely seen as Modi’s deputy — pledged that those behind the attack would not be spared.

India has long viewed Pakistan primarily through the prism of its security concerns. India accuses its neighbour of fomenting trouble in Indian-administered Kashmir, as well as of masterminding numerous violent attacks on Indian territory, charges which Islamabad has denied.

Ajay Darshan Behera, a scholar of international studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, says that India’s policy towards Pakistan hinges on the issue of “terrorism”.

“The previous Modi regime aimed to raise the costs for Pakistan for supporting terrorism. If there is no major terrorist attack in Kashmir, this Modi regime will likely maintain a policy of indifference towards Pakistan. It is doubtful that Prime Minister Modi will unilaterally initiate any re-engagement with Pakistan,” he told Al Jazeera.

Shaping that approach is the spectre of violence that has always hovered over the relationship when the two sides have attempted peace overtures.

Nawaz Sharif was Pakistan's prime minister when he traveled to India in 2014 to attend Modi's first oath-taking ceremony. [Harish Tyagi/EPA]
Nawaz Sharif was Pakistan’s prime minister when he travelled to India in 2014 to attend Modi’s first oath-taking ceremony [Harish Tyagi/EPA]

In late 2015, Modi paid a daylong surprise visit to Pakistan to attend the wedding of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter near Lahore.

The visit resulted in hopes that the two countries might be forging a path of reconciliation but merely a week later, a group of attackers entered an Indian Air Force base, killing at least eight Indians, including security personnel. India blamed Pakistan for the incident and demanded that it arrest the perpetrators of the attack.

India’s hardened stance towards Pakistan since then, said Lodhi, the former ambassador, had reaped “rich electoral dividends” for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — especially during the 2019 Indian elections.

“Their Pakistan-bashing makes chances of any India-Pakistan thaw very slim,” she added.

Salman Bashir, another senior diplomat and a former Pakistani high commissioner to India, said that India’s current position on Pakistan — effectively, a refusal to talk until its security concerns are addressed — is a relatively cost-free option for Modi, though he added that it might be premature to speculate on the Indian premier’s next steps.

“There are no compulsions for Modi to try to mend relations with Pakistan. India stands to gain by continuing its adversarial policy towards Pakistan,” Bashir told Al Jazeera.

2019 turning point

When Modi won the second term in the 2019 elections, the election campaign was marked by anti-Pakistan jingoism fuelled by a sharp escalation in tensions that left the neighbours on the verge of war.

Months before the elections, an attack in Indian-administered Kashmir saw more than 40 Indian soldiers killed. The Indian government blamed Pakistan for orchestrating the attack and launched a strike inside Pakistani territory, saying it targeted fighters’ training camps.

Pakistan responded by sending its fighter jets into Indian airspace the next day and in the ensuing chase, an Indian Air Force jet was shot down and the pilot captured. The tense standoff only calmed down after Pakistan returned the pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, two days after his arrest.

Riding the anti-Pakistan wave, as well as his own popularity, Modi’s BJP managed to win more than 300 seats and returned to power.

Five years later, things appear to have changed, at least domestically for Modi.

For long stretches of the seven-phase election campaigning, Pakistan’s mention as an electoral theme was almost negligible, and the country only became a talking point during the later stages.

Defying exit polls that had projected a landslide majority for the BJP and its allies, Modi’s party fell short of the halfway mark (272 seats) in parliament, winning 242 seats. It is the first time in a quarter century as a chief executive — first in charge of the state of Gujarat and then, since 2014, of India — that Modi has had to depend on allies to keep his government in place.

Irfan Nooruddin, a professor of Indian politics at Georgetown University in Washington, said that the “relatively poor performance” of the BJP in the 2024 general election might mean that the immediate focus of the Indian government is more “inward-looking” as the “party introspects on its losses and tries to avoid a repeat in the state elections”. Several key states are expected to vote for their legislatures in the next few months, including Maharashtra, India’s second-largest state.

“I doubt we’ll see any significant foreign policy announcements other than those that allow PM Modi to showcase his close personal partnership with Western leaders,” Nooruddin told Al Jazeera.

“Foreign policy tends not to be an electoral issue and the coalition partners on whom PM Modi’s government relies do not have strong foreign policy preferences,” Nooruddin added.

Diplomatic deadlock

Meanwhile, Sharat Sabharwal, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, said he does not foresee any major change in the foreign policy of the new Modi government compared to the previous one.

“I think India would respond positively to improve relations with Pakistan provided it sees a constructive and pragmatic approach from the Pakistani side,” he told Al Jazeera.

The former diplomat said that while it is a given that better relations will help benefit both countries, he added that holding an antagonistic stance exacts more of a cost on Pakistan.

“Pakistan’s adversarial posture towards India, a country with an economy 10 times bigger, imposes a heavy burden on its economy. Suspension of trade with India also hurts Pakistan’s economy much more than the Indian economy,” he added.

Leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad attending a leaders summit in Japan in 2022.
Leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, attending a leaders summit in Japan in 2022 [Zhang Xiaoyu/EPA]

India, with a population of more than 1.4 billion people, is the world’s fifth-largest economy.

It is becoming an increasingly assertive voice on the global front, hosting G20 summits, and joining various multilateral forums like the Quad. Modi’s first overseas trip after taking oath was to attend the G7 leadership meeting in Italy.

Meanwhile, Pakistan, a country with 241 million people, is seeking its 24th loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since 1958, to shore up its faltering economy amid a volatile political and security landscape.

“Both India and Pakistan’s economies would benefit from a more rational relationship, and given India’s relative economic strength vis-a-vis Pakistan, one could even argue that India would gain more,” Nooruddin said. “So, I do think it’s in India’s long-term interest to make its Pakistan posture less adversarial.”

Behera of Jamila Millia University said that improved bilateral ties could prove beneficial to traders and farmers on both sides who have lost business opportunities due to the stalemate.

“However, neither country can take the initiative to improve ties, as both have conditions for re-engagement. India demands a commitment from Pakistan to stop supporting terrorist groups, while Pakistan seeks the restoration of Article 370,” he added, referring to India’s 2019 decision to scrap the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir that gave it some autonomy.

Nooruddin said that both sides needed to do more to restore ties to a semblance of normalcy — but that New Delhi ought to take more responsibility.

“I’d argue it’s a shared onus. But India, which wishes to be seen as a global player and as the regional hegemon, should act first so that it can fulfil its global ambitions,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera