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Not Peace but War

Walter Russell Mead

Prime Minister Modi dropped in on Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif on Friday, which happened to be Sharif’s birthday. WSJ:

India’s prime minister made a surprise stop Friday in Pakistan to meet his counterpart in a richly symbolic gesture likely to add momentum to a tentative reconciliation process between the nuclear-armed neighbors […]

The trip was heavy with imagery. Mr. Modi has Hindu nationalist roots and has railed against Pakistan. Lahore is Mr. Sharif’s hometown. Not only was Friday Mr. Sharif’s birthday, but his family was also celebrating a wedding. Dec. 25 is also the birthday of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

In most of the world, this wouldn’t be newsworthy. Nobody flips out if the Danish Prime Minister goes to Norway for a weekend. But the twisted and charged India-Pakistan relationship, marked by wars, massacres, terrorism, nuclear rivalry, and continuing tension, is something else, and something unique.

The Modi-Sharif meeting looks like an attempt to restart an on-again, off-again process of improving economic relations between the two estranged neighbors. The two leaders come from somewhat similar roots: Both are identified with relatively pro-business, liberal economic ideas, and both are associated with nationalist ideas and movements. In the South Asian context, nationalism and religion are mixed. Pakistan was founded on the “two nations” theory, which holds that Muslims and Hindus in British India constituted two different nations, so that each needed a state of its own when the British left. Modi’s political power base is in the BJP, a pro-Hindu party that takes great pride in what it sees as India’s Hindu identity.

These analogies are always tricky and misleading, but in an American context, both of these politicians could be seen as Republicans, combining free market economics, old-fashioned patriotism, and conservative religious ideas. Their opponents—the Gandhi family and the Congress Party in India and the Bhutto-Zardari family and the PPP in Pakistan—are more like Democrats. Neither Sharif nor Modi represent the extreme wings of religious identity politics in their country; both would be more like Jeb Bush than Donald Trump.

But those similarities don’t necessarily make it easier for the two leaders and their countries to get along. The reality that Sharif (who took refuge in Saudi Arabia after a 1999 coup overthrew him) has Islamist support and Modi has a Hindu base makes it more difficult for them to get along—even as both share a strong interest in promoting economic growth and trade liberalization.

Sharif in particular has problems with his defense establishment. The military almost had him executed after he attempted to replace its leadership with his own supporters back in 1999. Today, the military is basically in control of anything that touches on national strategy and security, and it is as committed to rivalry with India as ever. Modi’s base, on the other hand, is inflamed against the Pakistani-backed campaign of infiltration and terrorism that helps keep the pot boiling in Kashmir and that has more than once led to major terrorist attacks in India.

It’s very hard for outsiders to read the tea leaves here, but it looks as if both the Pakistani military and the BJP are ready to tone things down a bit and to allow at least the appearance of progress in the bilateral relationship. Pakistan needs foreign investment and some quiet to nurse a fragile economy toward higher growth. The Pakistani military was shocked by the extent of violence that’s been directed against its own troops and installations by radical jihadis in recent years, and it’s probably more concerned about internal stability than usual. Growth could help with that, and while trade with India probably won’t amount to much, improved relations and a more peaceful atmosphere could help attract the foreign investment Pakistan badly needs. And the meeting with Modi strengthens the impression Sharif would like to create in Pakistan that his civilian government is something more than an insubstantial veil concealing the reality of military rule.

For his part, Modi, among other things, benefits at home from projecting an image of statesmanship abroad, and by demonstrating that a BJP government can manage the relationship with Pakistan effectively he is bolstering his party’s appeal. Modi’s anti-Muslim image, dating back to bloody riots in Gujarat while he was governor, riots in which thousands of Muslims were killed and, in the opinion of many outside observers, not enough was done to protect them, still disturbs many Indians both inside and outside the country’s large Muslim minority. An embrace from Pakistan helps.

What we are seeing, then, is almost certainly not the beginning of a real process of reconciliation between these estranged neighbors. This looks more like a piece of theatrical politics that announces a real but limited thaw. This is part of a well-established pattern in India-Pakistan relations as domestic leaders manipulate the tense international relationship in response to the political needs of the moment. The underlying hostility never fades away, but the intensity of the confrontation varies over time. India is not so secretly hoping that the violence, the ethnic conflict, and the regional strife simmering just under the surface in Pakistan will lead to the gradual breakup of a country they believe can never work. Many in the Pakistani security establishment hope that India’s Muslim minority, much of it economically disadvantaged, will grow more militant, and that a resurgent Islam will undermine Indian unity and power. Both sides fear the other, and both sides think they have reason for optimism about the ultimate outcome of their rivalry.

Unfortunately, while all this goes on, both countries continue to develop their nuclear arsenals, and the kind of deep trade integration that could really help ordinary people on both sides of the frontier doesn’t take place. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since the British hauled down the Union Jack for the last time over the old Raj. A fourth, quite possibly involving a nuclear exchange, cannot be ruled out. Modi’s quick visit to Lahore gives us some confidence that the relationship isn’t about to take a dramatic turn for the worse, but it will take more than a single encounter to create real hope that one of the world’s most expensive and dangerous rivalries is beginning to die down.

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