The recent trips to the United States by Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi provide ample evidence of India’s and Pakistan’s divergent trajectories. Nawaz arrived with no fanfare, a known commodity in familiar trouble back home. He delivered a lacklustre speech at the U.N. General Assembly notable only for dwelling on Kashmir, which has always been a harmful issue for Pakistan. Nawaz met with Vice President Biden in New York along with a few foreign leaders (at their request), and then left for home, where he faces unrelenting political opposition.
Modi arrived in New York as an ambitious, contentious, and intriguing figure with an electoral mandate to revive India’s fortunes. He spoke proudly in Hindi, promised much with few specifics, and met with a rapturous crowd of Indian-Americans at Madison Square Garden. Then on to the White House, long meetings with President Obama, and a fancy dinner during which the guest of honor fasted.
Love him or hate him, Modi is a charismatic leader who has everyone’s attention. Pakistan has previously been led by a charismatic leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who disappointed badly. Nawaz does not need charisma – he needs to rouse himself to lead, or step aside to let his most capable Party members do their best to reverse the country’s decline. If he is incapable of both, Pakistan could find itself with another charismatic figure unable to govern effectively. One of Nawaz’s primary tormentors has withdrawn his parliamentarians rather than offering new legislative initiatives. The other calls for a revolution.
Modi offers hope to his electorate and to the Indian diaspora. Nawaz’s record does not engender hope. Modi and Obama signed off on a vision statement. Nawaz has always lacked vision. He builds motorways, but to his credit, he is doing more to improve power generation than the previous, lackluster civilian government. The U.S.-India joint statement was suffused with promises. U.S.-Pakistan relations can do without lofty promises, since the past is littered with them. It will suffice if both Pakistan and the United States can work in tandem through the difficult security dilemmas they have co-created.
Dynastic politics aren’t limited to South Asia, as is evident by the Clintons and the Bushes. But dynastic politics have had extremely punishing effects on the subcontinent, hollowing out major political parties and saddling Pakistan and India with ill-functioning governments. Democratic elections do not offer opportunities for new starts when the two primary choices are both family-run political enterprises. While Pakistan struggles with this dilemma, India enjoys the promise of renewal because one of its two national parties is not beholden to a dynastic franchise.
Modi’s government, by all appearances, is a one-man show. Other performances of this kind on the subcontinent have not ended well. Some leaders with electoral mandates fail for lack of ambition, as Nawaz is now doing. Others fail by overreaching badly enough for political rivals to recover. In Modi’s case, there will be dynamism whether he succeeds or fails.
Divergent trajectories on the subcontinent have significant ramifications for the nuclear competition and for the Kashmir dispute. As Pakistan falls increasingly behind India, it increases reliance on nuclear weapons to shore up shortcomings. This is an understandable but questionable strategy, since nuclear weapons cost money without providing usable military capability.
The dangers inherent in any nuclear competition can be mitigated, however, if stockpiles are well secured, if crises are avoided, and if disputes are being amicably resolved. The stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal are serious, competent, and numerous — as was the case in the former Soviet Union. Despite its military might and large nuclear stockpile, the Soviet Union collapsed because of poor governance, internal strains and economic failure. At the end of the day, nuclear security is only as strong as the society and the economy that nuclear weapons are meant to defend.
Nor are their signs of the amicable resolution of grievances on the subcontinent. Just the opposite is true, as is evident by heavy firing along the Kashmir divide. Divergent national trajectories may make reconciliation between India and Pakistan harder. Modi’s government has sent out mixed signals about wanting to engage Pakistan, but showed little sense of urgency in resuming bilateral talks and pulled the plug prior to a meeting of the two Foreign Secretaries because of haggling over Kashmir. There was no private meeting and not even a handshake on the periphery of the UN General Assembly, where Nawaz dusted off proposals for a plebiscite to resolve the Kashmir dispute.
Not surprisingly, firing across the Kashmir divide accompanied diplomatic jockeying over the Foreign Secretaries meeting and greatly intensified after the UN speeches. Pakistan has prided itself as a bulwark against Indian hegemony. Its national security policies have rested on the assumptions that India cannot become a major power without addressing Pakistan’s grievances, and that New Delhi is dependent on Pakistan’s help to gain access to Central Asian markets. Both assumptions are increasingly suspect. Well before Modi’s election, Indian strategic thinking was gravitating toward a strategy of indifference toward Pakistan and betting on markets in East Asia rather than Central Asia.
Pakistan’s strategic analysts still seem to be operating under their old assumptions. Munir Akram, an accomplished diplomat whose last posting was as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, offered this familiar refrain in a recent op-ed:
India and Pakistan have a common interest in de-escalating the violence across the Kashmir divide. But more troubles lie ahead unless New Delhi places a higher priority in engaging Pakistan. Being left increasing behind India is bad enough for Pakistan’s national security decision makers; an Indian posture of indifference adds insult to injury. It might take a Nobel Prize ceremony and the intercession of a teenager to put relations back on an even keel, at least temporarily.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and Director of Stimson’s South Asia program. This essay appeared in http://www.armscontrolwonk.com.