Home Lightbox Game Changers

Game Changers

by Khaled Ahmed
Prakash Singh—AFP

Prakash Singh—AFP

The Sharif-Modi duo can greatly quell the crises afflicting South Asia.

Before and after his two-day visit to New Delhi late last month, Pakistan’s anti-India consensus tried to put the squeeze on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Pre-visit, nonstate actors raged in the street against Sharif’s departure. “New Delhi has been fueling separatist movements in Balochistan, Sindh, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa besides funding and training terrorists in Pakistan, killing and maiming Kashmiri Muslims, and blocking waters of [our] rivers,” said Hafiz Saeed of the Jamat-ud-Dawah at a rally in Lahore. He warned Sharif not to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in: “You will face public wrath if you visit India.” Post-visit, Pakistani media analysis saw Sharif’s trip as a “surrender” to Indian hegemony in the region and likened Modi’s investiture ceremony to a darbar under the British Raj where loyal princes would symbolically bend the knee to the viceroy.

Such blinkered reactions are ritual, and they ignore the fact that a Sharif-Modi partnership can resolve both the internal turmoil Pakistan and India face as a result of their decades-long hostility as well as several other crises facing South Asia.

Anticipating preemptive agitation by nonstate elements Pakistan no longer controls, it took a while for Sharif to confirm he would attend the ceremony. His office told the press that he would make the decision on May 26—the very day the investiture was to be held—and spoke of three options before him: one, that he himself go; two, that he send his adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz; or three, he let Pakistan’s high commissioner in New Delhi attend. But T. C. A. Raghavan, the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad, let the cat out of the bag by saying “the prime minister has accepted the invitation to be present at the ceremony.”

Modi had invited leaders from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka to his swearing-in. It was said he did this without advice from his party hierarchy and upset Jayalalithaa Jayaram, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, over his invitation to Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Muslim leaders of India-administered Kashmir, however, expressed appreciation of Modi’s gesture toward Sharif. Modi took the risk of having his invitation get rejected by Sharif—which is what Pakistan’s anti-India lobby would have liked to happen—but his bet paid off: Sharif went to New Delhi and started a new chapter in Pakistan-India relations.


India, the world, and Pakistan will quickly adjust to the hardline, rightwing Modi being in power. The Indian nation chose him through free and fair elections; and the liberals and pluralists in India who didn’t vote for him will also have to adjust and carry the moral burden of rebuking Modi, whenever his government takes a misstep, and learn to cope with a powerful prime minister after decades of debilitating coalition politics.

As the world adjusts to him, Modi will also have to tweak his sails now and then to get more of the world on board. He will approach India’s neighbors with messages of good cheer, but India’s periphery will have to do most of the adjusting, some of which will be morally necessary but most of which will be realistically opportune. The yardstick of selfish gain—not “principles” or “national honor”—will be constant. Modi will ignore border disputes and mend with China. As chief minister of Gujarat, he spent 13 years inviting Chinese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern investors and officials to his state while the U.S. and Europe had largely turned their backs on him after the 2002 communal conflict. He will also mend with America, where his entry was banned as a killer of innocent Muslims. America will match his suppleness because it needs India on its side in the Southeast Asian pivot against China.

For Nawaz Sharif, this time around the risks from pursuing ‘normal’ relations with India may be greater.

This will put pressure on the Indian periphery. Bangladesh has learned to adjust, despite water disputes that clearly show Dhaka in the right. Sri Lanka will have to deliver on the Tamils it is killing because Modi’s approach will compound the international pressure on Colombo to respect human rights. In the past, Sri Lanka has behaved more realistically with India than other South Asian states have.

As an unspoken state doctrine, Pakistan’s India-centrism will complicate the Modi challenge. Some of the difficulty will belong in the category of Pakistan’s bleeding-heart guardianship of Indian Muslims. The Pakistani media is ringing with references to the Gujarat massacres, but this drumbeat is hollow as it ignores what is happening to Muslims in Sri Lanka. A recent Newsweek cover story reported that, “The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the largest Muslim party, detailed 241 attacks on Muslims during 2013. These attacks included mosques being stoned, Muslim-owned shops being struck by Buddhist monks, calls for the hijab to be outlawed, and a successful campaign against halal meat. Four-letter obscenities against Allah have been scrawled on mosque walls and pig’s heads drawn on their exteriors or even tossed inside.”

Islamabad first hesitated and then made some unwise noise about the hanging of clerics in Bangladesh this year because of Pakistan’s rather murky transnational nexus with the Jamaat-e-Islami party there; but the generally more realistic reaction in Pakistan favored leaving the issue well alone. Will Pakistan be likewise pragmatic with Modi?

Risky Business

Modi has accepted Sharif’s invitation to Pakistan. The last time Sharif hosted an Indian prime minister, the infinitely more statesmanlike Atal Bihari Vajpayee (also from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party) in 1999, the good vibes didn’t last long. Sharif ran afoul of the Army; he was ousted, jailed, and exiled. Sharif’s “trade with India” slogan is backed by most economists and chambers of commerce and industry in the country, but this time around the risks from pursuing “normalization” with India may be greater.

Pakistan sinks into amnesia when discussing foreign policy and starts acting as if its internal sovereignty is intact. It has actually handed over the conduct of its foreign policy to jihadist elements out of its control. It also forgets that any reformulation of policy by the elected government may run up against the ingrained mindset of these nonstate actors. Indeed, what is amply proved in the streets is the capacity of these “instruments of policy” to also be the formulators of policy. Many “incidents” have to be owned by the state through the paradox of denial: instead of punishing the instrument, denying that the instrument orchestrated an event.

The country has suffered economic damage pursuing the unchanging, “principled” policy of revisionist challenge to India, but this may not have hurt it enough to make it repent. Shahid Javed Burki, a former World Bank economist, says: “The past process was ‘India-centric’ in the sense that Pakistan tried, sometimes with desperation, to balance India’s growing military might. That approach proved costly. In a 2007 report … I estimated that the Kashmir dispute alone had cost Pakistan 2.25 to 3.2 percent a year of growth loss in GDP terms. Compounded over a period of six decades, this suggests the magnitude of the colossal damage Pakistan has done to its economy by following this particular quarrel with India. This study used purely economic factors; it did not take into account the undeniable fact that some of the cost of this approach toward India contributed to the rise of Islamic extremism in the country. That, too, has resulted in serious economic losses.” (Modi thinks India, too, has damaged its economy through the anti-business Nehruvian model, which his predecessor began to overturn but could not completely.)

Sharif can hit it off with Modi but will be hampered by elements that force the world to call Pakistan a failed state because of its lost internal sovereignty. Modi will take the “trade first” option offered by Sharif; but if he is squeezed on the “Kashmir first” option, he will join the rest of the world in squeezing Sharif with “do more” pressure against Pakistan’s “instruments of policy,” the nonstate actors.

Parasites, All

Last year, the Supreme Court of India pronounced that the 1993 Mumbai bombings that killed 257 people were the result of “the management and conspiracy” of “Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon” and were “executed with the help of [Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s chief spy agency] which played a vital role in imparting training to the accused.” Islamabad has vehemently denied the allegations as well as claims of Ibrahim’s alleged sightings in Pakistan.

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister in Islamabad, stubbed his toe when he reacted angrily to Modi linking normalization of bilateral relations to Pakistan’s coughing up of Ibrahim. It so developed that Modi hadn’t said any such thing. But in the coming days, the Mumbai don and many others in the gallery of nonstate rogues, most of them let off by Pakistani courts with fig-leaf verdicts, will become a major point of bilateral discussion. Pakistan will balk; and it will suffer for being transfixed in a policy rut.

Modi’s rise comes at a time when Pakistan is settling on a new policy for its western neighbor.

Most foreign-policy experts in Pakistan study events keeping their eyes averted from how much Modi can gain from the international reaction to the rogues housed in Pakistan. In 2008, a U.N. Security Council committee, on India’s request, designated Jamat-ud-Dawah, the frontal organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba, as a global terrorist organization and its leader Saeed, chief of operations Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, and chief of finance Haji Muhammad Ashraf as terrorists. Later, the U.S. went ahead and placed a bounty of $10 million on Saeed’s head.

While in jail in Pakistan, Lakhvi has been allowed to wed again and, after regular cohabitation, become a father. Unfortunately for Pakistan, in 2012, a terrorist named “Abu Jandal” (in fact, Zabihuddin of India) was repatriated to India by the seemingly friendly-to-Pakistan Saudi Arabia and revealed all. While Zabihuddin was doing R&R in Saudi Arabia after training in Pakistan, Lakhvi phoned him triumphantly from his Rawalpindi prison to tell him that he was having the time of his life four years after his trial had started with no end in sight.

Islamabad has yet to decide what policy to adopt on a post-NATO Afghanistan armed with a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. and likely led by a pro-India Abdullah Abdullah as president. So far the strategy had been to oppose Indian presence in Afghanistan by, according to foreign journalists and observers, smuggling across the Taliban and foreign militants to cause trouble. Pakistan has repeatedly denied this allegation as well. Of course, the policy to divide the Taliban into the “good” (those who attack Afghanistan) and “bad” (those who attack Pakistan) became flawed because of the linkages the two categories developed when Islamabad tried “peace” talks with the “bad” Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.

Peace Dividend

Pakistan’s trade-first approach to India will sort out other complicated strategic issues also. The foreign militants on Pakistani soil are hurting Islamabad’s relations with “all-weather friend” Beijing. Last month, a Chinese tourist was kidnapped from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Dera Ismail Khan and taken to North Waziristan. A Taliban spokesman announced that the tourist would only be released if China were to free a number of Uighur warriors from its prison in Xinjiang. The next day, Pakistan’s Air Force bombed North Waziristan, killing 71 men—including, according to the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations agency, Taliban commanders and foreign militants. There are about a dozen groups of foreign militants present in Pakistan. These include Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and its breakaway faction of the Islamic Jihad Union, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement made up of separatist Chinese Uighur Muslims, the Afghan Taliban, and the Haqqani network.

With the new government in Kabul, the odds of Pakistan finding success with its old Afghanistan strategy are dim. The process of “peace” talks with the “bad” Taliban—a process with which the Pakistan Army under its new chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, was apparently not in agreement—was a part of this strategy. By pursuing talks, Prime Minister Sharif thought that if the strategy was inflexible and obdurately fixed, then he should at least make his government minimally functional in the midst of the pro-Taliban terrorist affiliates and madrassah-linked clergy spread across the country. Modi’s rise coincides with Pakistan’s new, work-in-progress Afghanistan strategy.

In the coming days, Modi will mount friendly pressure on Pakistan to do more against its nonstate actors and foreign militants, a strategy he will pursue in tandem with the U.S. and, more delicately, China. There is a speculative consensus in India that Modi will need peace around the region during his tenure to actualize his policy of bringing big money into India. He will therefore be attracted to any trade-first overture from Pakistan end-loaded with a comprehensive dialogue on bilateral issues that could go on forever.

This consensus, however, carries a caveat: Modi will have zero tolerance for any future attempt at cross-border terrorism by Pakistan’s nonstate actors. The caveat becomes nuanced when seen in light of Sharif’s trade-first mantra. If the two countries embark on normalization and fast-track economic integration under the umbrella of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, a common strategy to avoid another war, especially one triggered from the misdeeds of nonstate actors, can be fashioned. A grateful world will gladly assist Pakistan and India toward this new approach.

From our June 7-14, 2014, issue.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment