Pakistanis wary of Modi's triumph in Indian election

Narenda Modi's victorious BJP took a bellicose stand on Pakistan during the campaign, but a deep partnership that lies beneath the tensions makes conflict unlikely.

Manish Swarup/AP
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters dance to celebrate preliminary results that showed the BJP winning by a landslide, outside the party headquarters in New Delhi, India, Friday, May 16, 2014. In neighboring Pakistan, the atmosphere is far more subdued.

In India, supporters of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi are celebrating a historic landslide electoral victory. In neighboring Pakistan, the atmosphere is far more subdued.

To many here, Mr. Modi's role in the 2002 Gujarat riots in India – which killed nearly 1,000 Muslims under his watch as chief minister – confirms the need for Pakistan, carved out of Hindu-majority India in 1947 as a home for its Muslim minority.

His right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – which won an outright victory, the first party to do so in more than 30 years – has not calmed Pakistan's fears. The party has vowed to revise a "no first strike" nuclear weapons policy and threatened to make Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir a full-fledged Indian state. The dispute over the territory, whose western half is controlled by Pakistan, has already sparked three wars, and any move by India to fully incorporate it could lead to a fourth.

But for all the BJP's bellicose comments, India is unlikely to court a war with Pakistan under Modi. Voters are counting on Modi to deliver economic development, and that is what he is expected to focus on.

“[Modi] wants trade and economic ties, so he is not going to create conflict, because with conflict your economy suffers,” says Raza Rumi of the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank.

Potential for increased trade

India enjoyed a growth rate of nearly 10 percent of GDP for much of the past decade, but that has been cut in half in the last two years. Inflation hovers at 10 percent. 

Modi has vowed to boost the economy, and closer ties to the Pakistani market would be an important step.

In 1947, 70 percent of Pakistan's and India's foreign trade was with each other. A series of wars over disputed border regions – Jammu and Kashmir, as well as Sir Creek in the south – reduced that to nearly zero. Today's trade totals $2.7 billion, a fraction of a potential $40 billion, according to a report by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

An ebb and flow

In 1999, then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made history by taking the first trip of a new public bus service across the border into Lahore to meet his counterpart in Pakistan. Like Modi, Mr. Vajpayee was from the BJP. Pakistan's leader was Nawaz Sharif, who was reelected this year as prime minister.

The two leaders signed an agreement to reduce the risk of nuclear exchange between their countries, which had become nuclear powers just a year earlier. That 1999 accord has held, even through times of strain, such as in 2002, when another border war in Kashmir seemed imminent. The US, worried a conflict with India would distract Pakistan from its border with Afghanistan, helped broker a cease-fire that still holds.

Soon after, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf lifted an oft-flouted ban on India's Bollywood movies, and inked agreements to open up trade across the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir.

Non-state actors have occasionally caused tensions to spike. In 2008, for example, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a militant group based in Pakistan, killed 164 people in a devastating attack over three days on several locales in Mumbai. The incident derailed Musharraf-era agreements for three years. 

Today, small incidents grate. Thousands of fishermen are detained every year in India and Pakistan for accidentally crossing an unmarked, disputed maritime boundary at Sir Creek on the Indian Ocean.

“I have not seen any improvement in ties,” says Muhammad Ali Shah, a Pakistani who works with the fishermen. Often detained for years, they are freed in what both governments call “confidence building measures," only for more to be arrested soon thereafter. 

"They pick up the same number of fishermen as soon as they release some.... There hasn't been a single day where a poor fishermen hasn't sat in prison,” says Mr. Shah, adding that his counterparts in India have asked Modi to end the practice. 

Small steps

Modi's victory ushers in a government confident enough in its right-wing credentials that it might finally be ready to move past Mumbai.

One potential step could be to fulfill agreements to ease visa restrictions and travel. Pakistan and India issue no tourist visas between the two countries, offering only those for academic visits, business trips, and religious pilgrimages. The application process typically takes more than three months. Only six flights operate between India and Pakistan, linking Karachi and Lahore with New Delhi and Mumbai.

Each year, more than 4,000 pilgrims – Sikhs coming to Pakistan, and Muslims going to India – cross the border, but in times of political tension, they are often left in the lurch. This May, India canceled visas for 500 Pakistani Muslim pilgrims, citing security concerns.

Still, the Internet and satellite television ensure a constant exchange of information across the border. Pakistanis watch the latest Indian movies and television shows with gusto. A handful of actors and musicians have found success on both sides of the border, and paparazzi have covered celebrity marriages across the Line of Control, like royal weddings.

“Pakistan and India are products of what was once an intimate union, and no amount of revisions on the nuclear policy can change the fact that disaster for one country would equally (and eventually, also) spell doom for the other,” says Heba Al-Adawy, of the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad.

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