Modi’s Kashmir gamble

BJP's alliance with PDP in Jammu and Kashmir may help break the India-Pakistan impasse

Modi’s Kashmir gamble
If it is a thaw, it certainly doesn’t feel like one. After recriminations over New Delhi’s decision to call off secretary-level talks in August and subsequent cross-border firing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dispatched Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to Islamabad earlier this month. Jaishankar’s visit appears to have yielded little — it is being portrayed as an ice-breaker, in preparation for Modi’s visit to Pakistan next year for the SAARC summit. Modi has sent a letter to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but there’s no indication of any agreed agenda for future dialogue.

In some ways, a reduction in hostilities is progress that may offer ground for hope. Both sides have re-engaged, opening channels to address border tensions and potentially contain the fallout should non-state actors destabilise ties with terror attacks. Despite the hard exterior, Modi certainly has incentives to remain interested in ties. He will be mindful of Sharif’s interest in increasing bilateral trade, which can be beneficial to Indian Punjab which is experiencing an economic crisis thanks to the mismanagement by the Akali Dal government. Industrialists close to Modi hope to export fuel and electricity to Pakistan, and New Delhi remains keen on the TAPI pipeline that will ferry Turkmenistan’s gas to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He is open to soft borders

Modi has also taken an important step by forging a coalition in Jammu and Kashmir with the PDP, even though it espouses ‘self-rule’ and ‘soft separatist’ rhetoric. The alliance document, which was mediated by a former RSS spokesperson now with the BJP, says the J&K government will “be empowered to catalyse reconciliation and confidence building within and across the Line of Control”. This will be done through promoting trade and people-to-people contacts, including civil-society exchanges, which means that the Modi government envisages a slow movement towards normalisation.

Modi has not talked up the implications of the Kashmir arrangement for India-Pakistan ties. There are reasons for this. First, the chasm between the two sides on the big issues such as terrorism, Siachen and Kashmir remains and there is no point in exuding hope while differences persist. Second, securing the conviction of Mumbai attackers in Pakistan remains a policy goal without which Modi will not be able to soften middle class opinion in India to achieve rapprochement with Islamabad. Third, there are conservative voices in the Delhi establishment that remain suspicious of Pakistan Army’s outlook towards India. And lastly, there’s an inherent tension between Modi the aspiring statesman and his own party which inevitably relies on anti-Muslim rhetoric as means of political and social control – which in turn generates hostile perceptions in Pakistan.

While Modi has been a hardline Hindu nationalist throughout his career, some expect the imperatives of power and governance to reorder his instincts and point to his initial outreach to Sharif as evidence. Indian liberals, however, are not convinced that he can make the transition in view of the pressure on the rights of minorities and individual liberties seen in recent months.

BJP president Amit Shah and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti after a meeting in New Delhi
BJP president Amit Shah and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti after a meeting in New Delhi

But critics might recognise that by forging an alliance with the unpredictable PDP in Kashmir Modi has subjected himself and the BJP into a risky, difficult experiment that will have a positive impact on ties with Pakistan. Already Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the new chief minister of J&K, has caused Modi’s BJP enormous grief with a series of confounding measures – crediting separatists and Pakistan for peaceful polls in J&K, asking for the return of the mortal remains of a Kashmiri who was hanged for his alleged role in the 2001 attack on Parliament, and releasing a hardline separatist leader Masarat Alam from prison. If the PDP-BJP alliance gets past this setback and enables more cross LoC linkages, Modi will have effectively used Kashmir as a crucible to moderate hardline voices in the BJP and the media and thereby put himself in a position to consider other breakthroughs with Pakistan.

There is one caveat though. Modi’s decision to call foreign secretary talks has led to the framing of India-Pakistan problems as purely being about Modi’s decision-making and evolution as a politician. That can be misleading. There are things Pakistan needs to do as well. Even Modi cannot overcome public perceptions of the Mumbai attacks and the terror infrastructure that is maintained in Pakistan with official support. Modi can maintain civility in the relationship but he cannot project a major rapprochement without confirmation that Islamabad has definite plans for winding down the India-focused terror infrastructure. This is at the heart of disagreements over the agenda and sequencing of dialogue, with both sides having its own priorities.

Modi’s Kashmir gamble – if it doesn’t fall apart soon – offers a way around this stalemate. If the PDP and BJP can sort their differences and implement cross-LoC initiatives, they can provide the context for greater India-Pakistan contact. Modi is unlikely to ever move towards a formal arrangement like the 4-point formula that Pervez Musharraf popularised, featuring soft borders, demilitarisation, self-governance and joint management. But he is open to soft borders as the PDP-BJP alliance documents suggests.

Policymakers in Pakistan must be alert to such possibilities and do what they can to keep the process on course. Three responses would help. One, maintain the lid on militant activities in Kashmir. Two, prosecute Mumbai attackers to alter attitudes in India’s strategic community that constrain Modi despite his political dominance. Failing that, we will witness a thaw by stealth which may be useful in itself but runs the risk of creating a narrative vacuum that can be captured by unhelpful interests or events. Three, the perennial question mark over the Pakistan Army’s outlook towards India should be addressed. Gen Raheel Sharif should articulate his views and not mimic the reticence of his predecessor, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, which India inevitably read as hostility. Since policy elites are unlikely to explore the most obvious ploy for managing tensions — ie establishing direct contact between the Pakistan Army and India’s civilian establishment —a measure of regular signalling to allay elite and public misperceptions would be useful.

Such measures seem unthinkable now when both sides can scarcely appear as being pleasant to each other.  But normalisation entails that all constituents play their role and take the opportunities that events present.

Sushil Aaron is Associate Editor, Hindustan Times. These are his personal views.

Twitter: @SushilAaron