India polls: Pakistan hopeful of thaw in ties after Modi victory

Mr Narendra Modi (in blue) waves as he arrives at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on May 17, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
Mr Narendra Modi (in blue) waves as he arrives at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on May 17, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - The election of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi has sent shivers through many among India's 150-million strong Muslim community, but neighbouring Pakistan is cautiously hopeful for a thaw in long-fraught ties.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is himself a centre-right leader, has hailed Modi's "impressive victory" which saw the hardliner gain an outright majority in India's parliament for the first time in 30 years.

Sharif has cited his working relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's last prime minister with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a reason for optimism, according to diplomatic sources.

It was during Sharif's second term in 1999 that Vajpayee rode a bus to Lahore to sign a peace accord, raising the prospect for normalisation between the two-nuclear armed neighbours that have fought three wars.

Three months later, the countries embarked on the Kargil conflict in the Himalayan region of Kashmir - though Sharif has blamed his then-army chief General Pervez Musharraf who went on to overthrow him in a coup, for provoking the fighting without his knowledge.

With both leaders currently enjoying a strong mandate - Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) won a big majority in elections last year - members of parliament and experts say the stalled peace process could get fresh impetus.

Sherry Rehman, a member of parliament for the opposition Pakistan People's Party and former ambassador to the United States, told AFP: "The blockbuster numbers should give Modi the parliamentary muscle and confidence to work with Pakistan for stability in the region.

"If his policies are driven by economy, then Pakistan would find it easier to do business with Modi's India, but the ball is in India's court."

Key issues confronting the relationship remain the disputed Kashmir region, as well as Islamist militancy inside India which New Delhi frequently accuses Pakistan of backing.

Bilateral ties have only slightly recovered from the rock bottom they hit after the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed by Pakistani gunmen.

For its part, Pakistan accuses India of funding a long-running insurgency in its southwestern Baluchistan province.

Simbal Khan, a former Pakistan fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the unpopularity of the outgoing Congress party had hindered its ability to thaw ties, despite its more secular and liberal outlook.

"There is a general feeling that coming from a right-of-centre platform and riding on this wave of popularity, any overtures or steps taken to mend relations or to take the subcontinent out of old constructs is more likely to happen under Modi's rule than Congress," she said.

Khan cited as an encouraging example the warming of ties between Pakistan's Punjab province, which is governed by Sharif's brother Shahbaz, and the Sikh-centric Shiromani Akali Dal party, a BJP ally which rules India's Punjab state.

The analyst said she was hopeful that Sharif may soon grant "Most Favoured Nation" status to India and open land borders in an effort to kickstart trade that would particularly benefit Pakistan's stuttering economy.

Sharif, a pro-business industrialist, is widely seen as being in favour of such a move though reports have suggested opposition by the all-powerful army has so far prevented him - and could conceivably block future attempts.

Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan's Herald magazine, said Modi too would come under pressure from within his party if he were to push too hard for peace.

"Right-wing Hindu nationalists have always opposed normalising ties with Pakistan and a leader representing them will both be well placed to take the initiative vis a vis Pakistan and under pressure from his own supporters to not do so.

"Will Modi, as PM, be able to lead his electorate rather than be led by it?" he said.

While Pakistan's civilian leaders and business community are in favour of closer ties, many ordinary people revile Modi, who is tainted by communal riots in his home state of Gujarat 12 years ago that killed 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

His campaign manifesto included pledges for a more muscular foreign policy, vowing a re-think of India's no-first strike nuclear policy and a hard line on Kashmir.

Such rhetoric had raised concern among some observers that another Mumbai-style attack planned on Pakistani soil could push the countries into all-out war.

But according to Mushahid Hussain, chairman of Pakistan's senate defence committee, some of the rhetoric could be simply an election strategy, and the two countries' nuclear capabilities would prevent such an outcome.

"There are two sides to Modi - a dark side based on bigotry and violence against Muslims, and a positive side on development. If he is willing to bid goodbye to the politics of hate, then are grounds for optimism," he said.

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