Many people in Pakistan were hoping that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, would not return to power after the mammoth general elections that concluded on Thursday. There was a sense in Muslim-majority Pakistan that Modi’s return would not augur well for ties between the two neighboring countries, as Modi in his first term had taken an aggressive stance against Islamabad. So the disappointment over Modi’s resounding election victory was quite natural.
“Modi and his party believe in a Hindu nationalist philosophy, which is essentially anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan,” Bakare Najimdeen from the Islamabad-based Center for International Peace and Stability, told DW. “He managed to secure another term by raising national security slogans and he promised to continue with his tough line against Pakistan. So I do not think that he will change his policy toward Pakistan.”
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Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, is hopeful that Modi’s reelection would be helpful for the peace process between the two South Asian rivals. He believes that a powerful government in New Delhi can take strong decisions to resolve longstanding issues between India and Pakistan.
The two nations came close to a full-scale war in February after militants in India-administered Kashmir killed scores of paramilitary forces. Modi, like his predecessors, blamed Pakistani militants for the attack, but he went a step further and launched an airstrike against a “militant camp” on Pakistani soil.
Modi used the “surgical strikes” against Pakistan in his election campaign, trying to convince voters that he has what it takes to curb alleged Pakistani terror. But was it just election rhetoric, or will Modi now be flexible with Pakistan, considering he has been reelected prime minister with a bigger electoral mandate?
“BJP governments have reached out to Pakistan in the past. In 1999, former prime minister and BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee signed the so-called Lahore Declaration with former premier Nawaz Sharif. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Modi goes for peace again,” Siegfried O Wolf, a senior researcher at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum, told DW.
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In 2014, Modi invited former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration, where the two leaders shook hands and pledged to improve bilateral ties. India-Pakistan relations remained stable until Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court in a corruption case. Some analysts say that the Pakistani army was unhappy with Sharif’s closeness to Modi and the former prime minister’s insistence on a decisive action against jihadis.
“Much depends on Pakistan’s willingness and ability to curtail cross-border attacks conducted by terrorists operating from Pakistani soil,” Wolf said, adding that for good ties with New Delhi, Islamabad will have to cut ties with radical Islamist organizations and clerics who spread anti-Indian sentiments in the country.
Wolf, however, believes that Modi’s reelection is a good omen for Pakistani Islamists, as they can now strengthen their “enemy India” narrative.
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Modi and Kashmir
The main bone of contention between India and Pakistan remains the Kashmir dispute. Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir — a region of 12 million people, about 70% of whom are Muslim. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.
Modi and BJP are unlikely to budge on Kashmir. The Indian prime minister took a hard line in Kashmir during his first term, and experts say that his more powerful second term would be even stricter.
“After the landslide victory in elections, the BJP is unlikely to give any space to Pakistan on Kashmir,” Talat Bhat, a Sweden-based documentary filmmaker and Kashmiri activist, told DW. “Much also depends how Indian security forces operate in Kashmir. Will Modi, in his second term, give some political space to Kashmiris for peaceful dissent? Or will he use the same aggressive strategy that has resulted in more violence in the valley? We’ll find out,” Bhat added.
But analyst Wolf is of the view that Modi’s domestic policies in Kashmir will largely be determined by Pakistan’s role in the Himalayan region. “Let’s not forget that after every major Indian peace gesture toward Pakistan, militants launched attacks in Kashmir or other parts of India. Any rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad would only be possible if Pakistan makes serious efforts to build confidence.”
Ties with Afghanistan
Indian and Pakistani interests also clash in Afghanistan. Security experts say that Islamabad is wary of New Delhi’s closeness with Kabul and considers it a big threat. Since the US ousted the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan has drifted away from Pakistani influence and moved closer to India. Although, Washington is now trying to use Islamabad’s services to convince the Taliban to agree to a settlement, the US-Afghanistan-India nexus remains strong.
“I think that ties between Afghanistan and India will be even stronger during Modi’s second term. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Modi on his victory, and the Indian premier assured Ghani that New Delhi will continue to support the Afghan government and the Afghan people,” Javed Hamim Kakar, an editor at Pajhwok Afghan News, told DW.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, also thinks that Modi will continue his close partnership with Kabul.
“There is strong support across the foreign policy elite in India for close ties with Afghanistan, and that consensus will continue with the return of Modi,” Kugelman told DW.
“India’s policy in Afghanistan is meant to strengthen Kabul and put the Afghan state in a better position to fend off the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban. That said, even a hardliner like Modi has been and will continue to be cautious in Afghanistan so as not to provoke Islamabad. This means that we shouldn’t expect Modi in his second term to put Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan,” Kugelman underlined.
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Apart from geopolitics, does Modi’s Hindu nationalist credentials and alleged anti-Muslim stance anger traditional Afghans?
Afghan journalist Kakar says Modi is very popular among Afghans, especially because of his tough approach toward Pakistan. Many Afghans accuse Pakistan of backing militant Islamists in their country.
“Just see how Afghans expressed their joy over Modi’s victory on social media,” he added.
Analyst Kugelman also believes that Modi’s nationalistic politics are not a concern for Afghans. “These politics may be divisive and discriminatory toward Muslims, but they are not directed at Afghans. In fact Modi’s Hindu nationalistic politics are helpful for Kabul’s interests as they emphasize a hard line policy toward Pakistan-a policy that enjoys robust support in Kabul.”
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Controlled relations with Beijing
Islamabad-based expert Najimdeen said that Pakistan’s closeness to China would remain a matter of concern for Modi.
Beijing’s support for Islamabad in many international forums has angered New Delhi, but analyst Wolf said that Modi would not let these issues hamper India’s overall relations with China.
“Both India and China are not interested in confrontation. But apart from trade and investment, the opportunities for bilateral cooperation will remain limited during Modi’s second term,” said the expert.
Wolf sees the border conflicts, India’s refusal to participate in Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and US-China tensions as major stumbling blocks in close China-India ties during Narendra Modi’s second term in office.
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Additional reporting by Masood Saifullah and S. Khan.