No, Modi is not a peacemaker

Normalization, at least partially, will likely happen not long after the Indian elections

By Touqir Hussain
May 28, 2024
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks with the media inside the parliament premises upon his arrival on the first day of the budget session in New Delhi, India, January 31, 2024. —Reuters

Thanks to the seductive power of electronic and social media, the visuals now tend to overwhelm our mind and seize its ability to look beyond. Image has become reality. Opinion is moving faster than knowledge, and speculation has become more newsworthy than analysis.


President Nixon’s visit to China is being recalled to speculate that Modi might become a peacemaker because it would be an exciting storyline, even though it is based on a fantasy that hardliners make natural peace makers.

The reality is that Nixon went to China not because he was a hardliner but because he had reached a strategic decision to take advantage of the Moscow-Beijing split and make peace and align with China to put pressure on the Soviet Union. And because he was a hardliner it was easy for him to sell this strategic shift domestically.

Then there is another distortion. Public relations as a proxy for policy has gone on forever, but there was a time when one could detect the difference. Not anymore. The two have become indistinguishable. Politicians now do not rely on regular media to reach out to their constituencies. They connect with their following largely on social media with whom their bond is more emotional than intellectual, with a much more powerful effect.

Remember how the media had just run away with the story of Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his first swearing-in in 2014. The media convinced itself that something new and exciting was happening. Peace between Pakistan and India might be in the offing, it was claimed. But in reality the invitation was no more than a public relations exercise.

All the Saarc leaders had been invited to what was essentially a ceremonial occasion, and Sharif could neither be excluded nor did he have the option to refuse. Yet a symbolic act of invitation through a succession of images came to be misjudged as a peace overture. No wonder the media to date continues to lament that the hope for peace raised by the event has not been realized. What was the basis of this ‘hope’? That the Indian prime minister would see Pakistan through the prism of his economic agenda? The fact is that when it comes to Pakistan, New Delhi’s policy is determined by more than a single factor.

And the reality is that for both electronic and social media issues are not just issues but stories. Shrewd politicians like Modi play on this fact very well. Remember his air dash to Lahore in December 2015, covered by the world media? But did anything productive come of it? On the contrary, relations started on their downward slide soon after from which they have not recovered. Such is the complexity of the relationship.

In truth there is no realistic basis to the speculation that Prime Minister Modi might try to leave behind a legacy of peacemaker after reelection. Legacies are consistent with a leader’s persona and record, not contrary to it. Prime Minister Modi’s tenure has been marked by a muscular approach to Pakistan whose intellectual underpinnings were provided by Foreign Minister Jaishankar, and ideological foundations by the RSS view of Muslims, Pakistan, and Kashmir.

Modi’s legacy of India-Pakistan relations will thus likely be of someone who fixed the ‘Pakistan problem’, formalized the annexation of Kashmir, and advanced a whole range of central agenda of the Hindu Right in India. The only India-Pakistan peace conceivable under him is one that imposes India’s will on Pakistan. That would be unacceptable to Pakistan, as hegemony accepted is hegemony established.

Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s oft-repeated remarks that Pakistan is “irrelevant” is more than an insult. It sums up India’s Pakistan policy. The implication is that Pakistan may need India, but India does not need Pakistan. India believes Pakistan has lost its leverage due to its growing internal weakness, the Afghanistan problem, external dependence, and vulnerability to international pressure orchestrated by India. As for any economic benefits promised by relations with Pakistan, India feels they are not worth giving any concessions, yet. India will talk but not negotiate.

Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar has expressed the government’s desire to resume trade relations with India. The question of trade has to be examined in the context of two central issues: the state of our economy, and India-Pakistan relations. Had the economy been reformed and strengthened, it would benefit from trade with India. But if it is weak and struggling, as is the case, it is because of Pakistan’s poor governance and debilitating power struggles, and not because of lack of commercial ties with India. These ties might help but only marginally. This is not an argument against trade but a cautionary note.

As for India-Pakistan relations, they are subordinate to a complex set of interests on both sides – domestic, regional and geopolitical – serving purposes larger than their own ties that transcend their trade relations. Each country has remained an indelible fixture of the other’s domestic politics. Then there is the Kashmir dispute. And Pakistan’s resistance to India’s hegemonic designs further defines their ties.

Regarding geopolitics, India benefits from its relations with the US just as Pakistan does from its relations with China. The US-China rivalry, especially America’s Indo- Pacific strategy, thus has an obvious fallout for India-Pakistan tensions. This may be one reason for Washington’s opposition to Pakistan’s long-range missile endeavours as reflected in the recently announced sanctions on three Chinese companies with alleged links to Pakistan’s missile programme.

While we seem to be ready to resume trade, India is not. It will not talk unless Pakistan drops the Kashmir-related pre-conditions. Pakistan will have to accede. But the harder thing will be to reconcile with India’s refusal to give any concessions on Kashmir which will be the crux of India’s terms for normalization.

Peace with Pakistan is therefore not going to be Modi’s legacy. Talks: definitely; normalization: probably; a durable peace: unlikely. There can be no peace without normalization but there could be normalization without peace. Peace is generally when two countries do not see each other as a credible security threat. And there are no outstanding disputes that cannot be resolved peacefully. Normalization broadly means normal diplomatic relations, trade and visa regimes.

Normalization, at least partially, will likely happen not long after the Indian elections. Peace involves much more, on both sides. And is nowhere on the horizon. Pakistan will have to offer a compelling economic incentive to entice India for peace. But for that to happen Afghanistan has to stabilize first, enabling Pakistan to become a connectivity hub for pipelines and trade with Central Asia. But more importantly, Pakistan has to rise economically to convince India that the benefits of peace clearly exceed the cost of ignoring it.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore.