Overcoming South Asia’s Peace Spoilers

MONTREAL – Long-anticipated peace negotiations between India and Pakistan appear to have been delayed until after India’s May parliamentary elections, and the prospects for subsequent talks are not clear. Victory for Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a resurgent Taliban in the wake of the United States’ impending troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s continuing failure to negotiate with or suppress the Pakistani Taliban, point to a period of intense uncertainty and potential conflict. But this is no reason to give up trying for peace.

True, Modi’s peacemaking credentials are already highly questionable, both at home and in Pakistan. He was Gujarat’s chief minister in 2002 when riots killed more than a thousand Muslims. Many fear that, as Prime Minister, he would polarize the entire country along communal lines. And, thus far, he has taken an uncompromising position on Pakistan, and will probably continue to talk tough, at least for the time being.

But Modi is likely to take cues from his BJP predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who visited Lahore in 1999 to talk peace with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif (who returned to power in 2013). There are good reasons for Modi to do so. Peace with Pakistan would strengthen his personal standing nationally and internationally, thus constituting a step toward fulfilling the BJP’s great-power ambitions for India. It would also help revive India’s weakened economy by spurring foreign investment, the benefits of which Modi has already seen in Gujarat.

Sharif has offered India olive branches of his own, and with good reason: Rapprochement with India is essential to strengthening his position in Afghanistan and improving his capacity to suppress violence at home. Peace with India would also allow him to undercut the power of Pakistan’s military and its intelligence wing, the ISI. Although entering peace talks with a future Modi government would risk provoking a domestic backlash, Sharif might still be willing to break the ice if the main political parties support his moves.