Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with his newly elected Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on Tuesday, using the occasion of Modi's swearing-in ceremony for an impromptu hour of talks between the leaders of the two long-feuding nuclear powers.
The conversation between Modi and Sharif capped several days of controversy stemming from Modi’s invitation to the Pakistani prime minister — the first time since the two countries’ bitter partition in 1947 that a leader from one attended an inauguration ceremony in the other. And it fueled optimism that relations between the neighboring countries, which have fought each other in several wars, might thaw under the leadership of Modi, a hard-line Hindu nationalist but one who has championed economic cooperation with all of India’s neighbors — even Pakistan.
After the ceremony, Modi and Sharif smiled and shook hands for photographers. They had spoken for well over the 35 minutes anticipated by diplomatic schedules, apparently broaching “some very emotional things,” according to a series of tweets from Modi.
But neither he nor Sharif mentioned anything about more substantive discussion on the hot-button issues that divide the two countries — including their long-running standoff over the passionately disputed Kashmir region.
Still, the landslide victory of Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janati Party (BJP) — in a record-setting election, no less — has created a moment of hope for rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan that may seem counterintuitive.
Modi has been dogged throughout his political career by accusations that he allowed, or even instigated anti-Muslim riots that killed more than 1,000 people while he was governor of India’s Gujarat state in 2002. His often vitriolic comments about Muslims — especially about immigrants from Bangladesh — have not helped allay concerns among India’s minority Muslims about the resurgent BJP.
But Modi is seen by many as well-equipped to broach normalized relations with Pakistan by the very fact of his hardline credentials, which could grant him more political leeway at home to make painful concessions than his predecessor, Manmohan Singh.
"He will be hard to outflank from the right," the Times of India said Tuesday in an editorial. "The key reason why peace can break out while Modi and Sharif are in charge ... is that both governments now have strong mandates in their respective countries."
History underpins the current optimism: Though it is partnered with the most extreme nationalist factions in India — the Shiv Sena and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the BJP, under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was in power during the last hopeful moment for bilateral relations in the late 1990s.
So was Sharif, in his second term as Pakistan’s prime minister. The Pakistani leader noted that fact in comments to reporters on Tuesday: “I intend taking up threads from where Vajpayee and I left off in 1999.”
During that brief window, back-channel negotiations nearly brokered a resolution to the Kashmir dispute, which to this day remains the biggest hurdle to better relations between the two countries. The most recent attempt at bilateral talks collapsed in early 2013, when cross-border clashes re-erupted in Kashmir, culminating in the beheading of an Indian soldier.
And Modi has indicated a willingness to look past his own perceived sectarian convictions in the interests of revitalizing trade with Pakistan, which has expanded nine-fold since 2004 to $2.7 billion in 2011 but still remains far short of its potential.
Modi and the BJP at long last dethroned Singh’s long-dominant Congress party on a platform of economic revitalization for India, whose once-explosive growth rate has flagged over the past few years. Many expect he will continue the trend of gradually expanding economic cooperation with Pakistan, a policy that might provide a back door for bilateral relations to improve.
India is reportedly close to securing most-favored-nation status with Islamabad, a designation that would allow Indian exports greater access to Pakistan markets. Finalizing that status will be high on the new prime minister’s agenda.
“The key to figuring out what’s going to happen is to see what’s going to win out: The hardline, anti-Muslim nationalist side of Modi or the more pragmatic, diplomatic, economic-focused world view. I think we’re seeing the latter with this meeting,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center.
But Kugelman and others caution against reading too far into Tuesday’s summit. Even if the two leaders discussed hammering out low-risk, confidence-building measures and economic accords, these things will not quell the violence in Kashmir or uproot six decades of mistrust between India and Pakistan.
“More trade doesn’t guarantee cordial relations,” noted Joshua Keating at Slate. “Just look at Russia and the EU or Venezuela and the United States.”
Even if they are truly willing to make the difficult concessions required for detente, Modi and Sharif will need to tread lightly at home.
“The elephant in the room is what the Pakistani security establishment thinks about the prospect of re-launching the process,” said Kugelman. “I’m not convinced they are ready to see this move forward as quickly as we may think.”
Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s foremost security apparatus, has long had considerable clout in Pakistani politics even when the military was not in power. The security establishment is genuinely wary of the existential threat posed by nuclear-armed India, with which Pakistan has fought four wars since 1947. Many in Pakistan, even some liberals, have similar trepidations about building trust with their longtime enemy.
Pakistan's security community may have more self-serving reservations, too. The military has, in part, derived the outsize role it enjoys in domestic politics from the imperative of defending the country from the looming Indian threat. “If you have some sort of peace process or normalization of ties, that would undercut the military’s justification for having such a role,” Kugelman said.
Likewise, some hardline nationalists in India will be similarly intolerant of any concessions that make India appear weak before its rival. There were even rumors that Uddhav Thackeray, head of the BJP-allied Shiv Sena, would boycott the swearing-in because he did not wish to rub shoulders with Sharif.
But Thackeray showed up in Delhi on Tuesday, a sign that even India's ultra-nationalists will give Modi some space to pursue peace with Pakistan. Thackeray explained he did not wish to block Modi’s overtures to Pakistan so early on but that “if, despite this gesture, Pakistan doesn’t change, we expect Modi to take firm steps.”
In fact, many observers expect Modi to do just that in the event of a provocation like the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, which killed 164 people over four days. The radical groups based in Pakistan who carried out those attacks on civilian targets in India are believed by Indian and U.S. officials to have had long-time relationships with the ISI, a charge Pakistan denies.
As much as Modi extends an open hand to Pakistan in the current moment of tranquility, his track record suggests that could quickly become a mailed fist.