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Assembly Elections 2017: Wins secured, it's time for kingmaker Modi to direct attention towards Pakistan

With a massive endorsement by the electorate in Uttar Pradesh, and his popularity at an all time high, will Prime Minister Narendra Modi use this political capital to mend fences with Pakistan. Modi has blown hot and cold on Pakistan, but since the Uri attacks, India had relentlessly tried to isolate Pakistan diplomatically. This has yielded little success. It was clear that there would be no softening of stance till the UP elections. But now with the elections done and dusted, perhaps the prime minister will once again turn his attention to relations with its troubling neighbour. A breakthrough here would give Modi’s image a major boost internationally.

There has been a degree of softening in the last one month. India will attend the Indus Water Commission talks scheduled for later this month in Lahore. Earlier the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), India’s flagship cultural body which is run by the MEA, sponsored the Karachi Literature Festival. The MEA was quick to point out that while India may have problems with their government, it was keen to promote people ties. This is also the first time that the ICCR sponsored an event in Pakistan. A number of Pakistani prisoners were also released a few days back. The two schoolboys who had inadvertently crossed over and were suspected to have involvement in the Uri attack, were also released and reunited with their families.

A group of Indian MP’s are also scheduled to attend a meeting of the Asian Parliamentary Assembly. The delegation headed by Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor is leaving on Sunday. All this is a clear indication of a change. But will this move gather steam over the next few months?

"Wait and watch," says former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. Modi having burnt his fingers more than once, is hardly going to rush in with an olive branch. "We have to look out for a few indicators," explains Mansingh. First on the list is another major terror strike. If that happens, Modi will not hesitate to act. Perhaps with a surgical strike or something even more. The other strong indicator would be the situation on the ground in Kashmir, explains Mansingh. India believes that the uprising in Kashmir is directly linked to support from across the border. If Pakistan continues to play the Kashmir card and stir protests in the Valley chances are there will be no truce with Islamabad.

There had been some hope when Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan's army chief, took over from Raheel Sharif that things would be different. Bajwa has the reputation of being a thorough professional and one who believes that the army should not interfere with the civilian government’s functioning. Yet, the fruit of the pudding is in the eating. Being in the position he is, his views may change. After all it has long been a tradition of the Pakistan army to call the shots when it comes to the civilian governments relations with major countries like the United States, India and Afghanistan.

 Assembly Elections 2017: Wins secured, its time for kingmaker Modi to direct attention towards Pakistan

Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif. PTI

But it is also a fact, that Pakistan’s decision to place Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief and mastermind of the Mumbai terror strikes Hafiz Sayeed under house arrest happened when Bajwa was the army chief. There maybe a number of reasons for this but the fact remains that the influential cleric is house bond. No one knows for how long.

With the onset of spring, the mountain passes are clearing up. It is now easier for infiltrators to cross over to Kashmir. India’s DGMO has already spoken to his Pakistan counterpart about infiltrators gathering in launch pads across the LoC to cross into Kashmir. Pakistan has denied their existence. If Pakistan persists in sending in trained terrorists to the state, it will mean more of the same thing. Modi can do little to improve ties with Pakistan then.

But if the peace holds and there is no indication of Pakistan stirring the pot in Kashmir, Modi will be in a position to seriously re-engage with Pakistan. Modi and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif will both be invited to the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation Summit at Astana, Kazakhstan, in June. After that there is the UNGA in New York. It would be worthwhile to watch the space for any breakthroughs at the side lines of these summits.

But there is also the contrary view. Analyst Srinath Ragavan believes, "Frankly I don’t think there was any domestic compulsion on Modi to either talk or not talk to Pakistan. It has little to do with UP elections." So long as there is no major terrorist attack where the death toll is significant, the government can well afford to continue like it is doing now. Ambushes and lone wolf attacks in Kashmir will not rock the boat for the government.

However, Raghavan feels that the current deadlock has to be broken. With the US and other world powers in a flux at the moment, there is no pressure on India and Pakistan to talk. The world is preoccupied with more pressing issues and Donald Trump’s shenanigans. Once the Trump presidency settles down, and the focus is on Afghanistan, India and Pakistan will be asked to engage.

Modi, an astute politician, knows this. He may start the process much before the Americans prod him into going for talks. Modi is often ahead of the game, and he certainly wants the endorsement of world leaders.

There is a good chance that he will begin cautious engagement with Pakistan. But is Nawaz Sharif, beset with his own internal problems and the Panama gate investigations, be in a position to reciprocate. There is a question mark on that.

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Updated Date: Mar 12, 2017 21:25:32 IST