Written by Kriti Shah.
Soon after his election as India’s Prime Minister in May 2014, right-wing leader Narendra Modi surprised pessimistic observers who had cast a doubt on the leader’s lack of foreign policy experience. Three years into his government, Modi has been able to assert India’s interests reasonably well, both internationally and in the subcontinent. With Pakistan, he has shown strength and a resolve for peace, while bringing about a certain unpredictability in the bilateral relationship.
After the attacks on Indian military camps, New Delhi intensified its efforts to isolate Pakistan internationally. Weeks after the attack, the government pulled out of the SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad, mentioning that Pakistan’s support to terrorist groups, made it impossible for countries in South Asia to meet in peace.
Given his hardline, nationalistic rhetoric against Pakistan during his campaign, many believed that his election would bring about a worsening of its relationship with India. However, once he reached New Delhi, Modi was unable to resist the urge that has plagued Indian prime ministers of the past: to make the effort for progress towards peaceful dialogue with Pakistan. Modi was quick to demonstrate India’s desire for deeper engagement and economic cooperation with its neighbours, by inviting leaders from neighbouring South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries for his inauguration, including Nawaz Sharif from Pakistan.
Sharif’s visit to India for Modi’s swearing in was lauded as a reset in relations between the two countries. Over the course of the next year, foreign secretaries of both countries met in Bangkok, preceding External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad. Modi and Sharif met in the Russian town of Ufa, on the side lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; their National Security Advisors held talks on “all issues concerned to terrorism” as well. However, disagreements on the exact nature of talks and Pakistan leaders’ meeting with separatists’ leaders in Kashmir, meant that little progress was made towards a comprehensive dialogue.
In December 2015, Modi made a surprise stop in Lahore, on his return to India from Afghanistan, greeting Sharif on his birthday in his ancestral home. However, the bonhomie between the two leaders ended soon after, as terrorists from Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammad punctured the fragile peace, attacking the Pathankot Air Force base in India, killing seven Indian soldiers. While Pakistan predictably denied involvement in the attack, the Modi government made the bold move of allowing the Pakistan Joint Investigation Team to visit the base to collect its own evidence. However, Pakistan soon said that they had insufficient evidence that the terrorists who orchestrated the attack were from Pakistan. Within the following months, the relationship was further soured as unrest in Kashmir spilled over with the death of youth militant leader Burhan Wani. Nawaz Sharif further stoked tensions by calling Wani a “martyr” and paying tribute to him after his death.
In September 2016, terrorists stormed an army camp in Uri, Kashmir, killing 17 Indian army soldiers. With public anger reaching new heights, the Modi government was forced to change its rules for engagement with Pakistan. The government promised that the attacks would not go “unpunished” and that India had the right to retaliate at a time and place of its choosing. On 29 September, India abandoned its policy of strategic restraint against Pakistan, as Special Forces launched ‘surgical strikes’ against terror launch pads in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK). Pakistan was quick to deny the strikes, even flying an international media delegation to the Line of Control (LoC) to show the absence of ‘evidence’ of a strike. Nonetheless, the Indian strikes were a much-publicised exercise, one that served to send a strong message. For a country, that has been hesitant to take risks with Pakistan, the surgical strikes gave India greater room for strategic manoeuverability. The cross-border attacks on terror camps also saw India move away from exercising strategic restraint against Pakistan, towards a more offensive-defence position.
The surgical strikes were only one aspect of India’s new response to Pakistan. After the attacks on Indian military camps, New Delhi intensified its efforts to isolate Pakistan internationally. Weeks after the attack, the government pulled out of the SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad, mentioning that Pakistan’s support to terrorist groups made it impossible for countries in South Asia to meet in peace. Following India’s withdrawal from the summit, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Nepal also announced their intention to boycott the summit and stand with India.
In his address to the nation on India’s Independence Day, Modi vowed to take up atrocities committed by the Pakistani government in Balochistan and PoK. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj further led the tirade against Pakistan at the United Nations General Assembly, making a strong pitch to the international community to isolate nations that shelter, peddle and export terrorism. While referring to the brutality against Balochis as the “worst form of state oppression”, India rebutted claims that it had put pre-conditions on talks, stating that those attacks were Pakistan’s response to India extending a hand of friendship.
Relations between the two countries dropped to a new low when in May 2016 Pakistan claimed to have captured an Indian ‘spy’, naval officer Kulbushan Jadhav in Balochistan and accused him of espionage and plotting crimes against the Pakistani state. Within months, Pakistan’s ‘opaque’ military courts sentenced Jadhav to death, without allowing India consular access or providing information and evidence of Jadhav’s supposed ‘guilt’. New Delhi took Pakistan to the International Court of Justice, calling Jadhav’s sentencing “premeditated murder”. In May 2017, the UN court granted a stay on Jadhav’s death penalty, ordering Pakistan to give India consular access to its citizen and not execute him until the court ruled a final decision.
India saw the court’s order as a significant win. The mainstream media showered Modi with praise. Sushma Swaraj “assured” the country that “under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we will leave no stone unturned to save Kulbhushan Jadhav”. The court’s final ruling will nonetheless force Pakistan’s hand on whether to execute Jadhav – violating the Vienna Convention and risking possible ‘war’ with India – or not. Although, if history is any indication, the fate of Kulbushan Jadhav lies not in the ruling of a court, but in the hands of Pakistan’s army.
The rapprochement between India and Pakistan through Modi and Sharif in Lahore less than two years ago is now a thing of the past, a bleak moment of hope in the tumultuous relationship between the two countries. Nawaz Sharif’s ouster as Prime Minister in August 2017 has meant a complete reset in relations with India. His departure meant the loss of the partner with whom Modi and India were seeking a peaceful dialogue; a setback in possible talks, once again. As is often the case with Pakistan, even if elected civilian leaders take certain steps towards engaging with India, the military can be sure to pull them back. For now, Modi can know that he tried. It is unlikely that he will now make any other overtures towards Islamabad, lest it backfire and threaten him in the general election in 2019.