Pakistan reacts with hope, skepticism to Modi’s victory in India election

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday congratulated his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, on the landslide electoral victory for his Hindu nationalist party, saying he hoped to work with Modi despite a recent flare-up of military tensions between the rival nuclear powers.

“Look forward to working with him for peace, progress and prosperity in South Asia,” Khan tweeted after it was clear that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, was set to return to power, winning well over a 272-seat majority in India’s parliament. 

Pakistan and India are perennial rivals that have fought three wars since Pakistan was created as a Muslim homeland in 1947 and carved out of India by British colonial rulers. Military tensions between them have recently reached their most dangerous levels since the two countries fought a brief high-altitude war in 1999.

India’s Modi wins resounding election victory with potent appeal to nationalism.

In February, Indian fighter jets dropped bombs just across the border inside Pakistan in retaliation for a terrorist attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region. The attack was claimed by a Pakistani militant group. Pakistan responded by shooting down an Indian jet but then returned the captured pilot in a conciliatory gesture. 

At the time, Khan suggested that a reelection victory by Modi, a hard-line Hindu nationalist and leader of the BJP, might actually make it easier for the two sides to make progress on Kashmir and other issues. The Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir has been roiled by unrest in the past two years, and the comment drew widespread skepticism within Pakistan. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at BJP headquarters in New Delhi after a landslide victory Friday. (Atul Loke/Getty Images)
Even before the Indian election results were clear on Thursday, however, Pakistani officials said they remained committed to a dialogue with India. Muhammad Faisal, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said at a press briefing that “the only way to resolve all outstanding issues,” including the Kashmir dispute, is by implementing U.N. resolutions. 

“Dialogue is thus essential,” Faisal said. “We remain committed to the same, irrespective of whoever forms the new government in India.”

Pakistan’s comments came one day after the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan held an informal meeting on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization gathering in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

During that meeting, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi conveyed to his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, Pakistan’s desire to resolve all issues through dialogue, according to media reports from Bishkek.

On Thursday, however, Pakistani commentators expressed doubts that relations would thaw in the near future, especially given Modi’s aggressive rhetoric toward Pakistan during his campaign.

“Modi’s reelection will be projected as a vindication of his belligerent policy towards Pakistan,” columnist Zahid Hussain wrote in the daily English-language newspaper Dawn. He said Khan’s hope for easier dealings with a victorious “right-wing Indian government under Modi has rightly drawn huge skepticism.”

Sherry Rehman, a Pakistani senator and opposition leader, tweeted Thursday morning that the likely BJP landslide “will mean a tougher neighborhood for Pakistan. The new BJP’s mandate . . . is extremism, exclusion.” Translating sweet talk into peace, she added, is “unlikely.”

The Indian election was followed intensely by Pakistani news outlets this month, and Dawn’s website provided live updates of the results Thursday. TV news commentators debated the impact of Modi’s sweeping victory, disagreeing about whether it would enhance peace prospects or lead to further antagonism. 

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military sent its own signal just before the votes were counted. It announced that Pakistan had conducted a successful training launch of the surface-to-surface Shaheen-II ballistic missile, which is capable of delivering conventional and nuclear weapons at a range of up to 1,500 miles.

“The Shaheen II missile is a highly capable missile which fully meets Pakistan’s strategic needs towards maintenance of deterrence stability in the region,” Pakistan’s military media office said in a statement early Thursday. The two nations first conducted nuclear tests in 1998. 

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