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India election

Relations with Pakistan to remain tense after India elections

Islamabad wary of Modi's intentions as both sides closely watch US reaction

People raise their hands as they chant slogans to show solidarity with Pakistan Armed Force in a rally Peshawar, Pakistan on March 1.   © Reuters

ISLAMABAD -- When tensions brought nuclear-armed India and Pakistan close to conflict in February, Prime Minister Imran Khan was quick to predict better ties between the South Asian neighbors once India's elections were out of the way. 

It's a hope that Khan, a former cricket star turned politician, held out again on April 9, just ahead of India's parliamentary elections this month. He told a small group of foreign correspondents in Islamabad that if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party wins, there could be "some sort of settlement in Kashmir," the mountainous region that has been the scene of armed rivalry between the two countries for more than 70 years. 

Senior officials in Pakistan's foreign ministry told the Nikkei Asian Review that Khan expects a future Modi administration in India to show the courage to negotiate an end to the dispute with Pakistan over the division of predominantly Muslim Kashmir. The region has been divided between India and Pakistan, with a small slice of territory under Chinese control. 

During clashes in February, Indian Air Force planes, in an apparently botched raid, bombed a hillside in northern Pakistan. The Pakistani Air Force in retaliation later shot down two Indian planes. Many analysts are skeptical about prospects for India-Pakistan relations to begin improving in the short term if Modi returns to office.

"Narendra Modi has run his campaign on hatred of Pakistan. This can't be quickly undone once the elections are over," said Zaffar Hilaly, a former Pakistani diplomat and now a commentator for the privately owned Channel-92 TV channel, in an interview with The Nikkei. Hilaly noted other recent controversies in India that could undermine improved ties with Pakistan, including Modi's promise to move to repeal the special status for Kashmir as part of a more muscular policy under a future BJP government. 

The promised reversal of the removal of Kashmir's special status would allow any Indian from outside Kashmir to purchase property in the mountainous state, unlike the current situation, in which only residents of Kashmir can do so.

Others, such as Abdul Basit, a former Pakistani ambassador to India who is considered a leading expert on India-Pakistan relations, told Nikkei that "tensions of the recent past have vitiated the atmosphere," so improving relations will take time. "I doubt if there can be an immediate reversal [of recent tensions] once Indian elections are over," he said. 

People ride motorbikes before the arrival of Indian Air Force pilot, who was captured by Pakistan, near Wagah border, on the outskirts of the northern city of Amritsar, India on March 1.   © Reuters

However, Basit added, future policymakers in New Delhi will have to allay international fears of conflict between the two nuclear-armed rivals. 

"Once the nuclearization of the [India-Pakistan region] comes into play, global powers naturally become concerned. No one wants to see a nuclear exchange," he said.

Western diplomats warn that continued tensions between the two countries raise the risk of a military clash spiraling out of control. "India and Pakistan have fought three major wars and many skirmishes. With such a history, it's important to manage relations," said one Western diplomat in Islamabad who spoke to Nikkei on condition of anonymity. He added that major powers such as the U.S., the U.K. and China have worked behind the scenes in recent weeks to encourage better ties between India and Pakistan.

Others noted that the U.S., which maintains close ties with both India and Pakistan, is especially keen for Islamabad to support a peace process in Afghanistan between Taliban fighters and the weak U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani. 

For U.S. President Donald Trump, an American military withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a major achievement that could boost his standing in next year's presidential elections. 

"For the U.S., withdrawal from Afghanistan is not only important. The Americans cannot meet that objective without Pakistan's support," said Lieutenant General Ghulam Mustafa, a former senior Pakistani military commander, in an interview with Nikkei.

"Pakistan has influence with the Taliban, and Pakistan has a role to play in an Afghan settlement. I think the Americans value Pakistan's contribution to Afghanistan and that's why they [the U.S.] will not want a conflict" between India and Pakistan, he said. Pakistani officials have told Nikkei that in the event of a military escalation with India, they will be forced to focus on defending their country even if that forces the country to put their Afghan peace efforts on hold.

A second Western diplomat in Islamabad, however, warned that it is important for India and Pakistan to move toward normalizing relations, especially given the risk of a relatively peripheral development quickly escalating into war. The military exchange in February followed a terrorist attack in the India-controlled part of Kashmir, in which at least 40 paramilitary soldiers were killed. 

India said the lone suicide bomber involved in that attack was a member of the Jaish e Mohammad (JeM), a Pakistan-based anti-India militant group. But Pakistan said separatists in Indian Kashmir perpetrated the attack. "Before there's another incident that takes India and Pakistan to the verge of a bigger conflict, it's important for the two countries to begin talking," said the second Western diplomat.

"Two countries armed with nuclear weapons maintaining a tense standoff is in no one's interest," he concluded.

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