WASHINGTON - The US print and electronic media Saturday highlighted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s move to attend his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony as a sign of possible thaw in the relations between the two neighbours, but an American scholar warned that under Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, India was likely to expand its overseas intelligence operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Writing in The Washington Post, Paul Staniland, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, said that the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat, was Modi’s first challenge even before being sworn in, and called it “grim welcome message.”

“While the possibility of a Sharif-Modi dialogue and more concerted Pakistani attacks on radical TTP (Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan) factions are welcome, the attack on the Herat consulate and deadly clashes along the Line of Control that divides the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled areas of Jammu and Kashmir make clear how unstable the region is,” he wrote in an opinion piece.

Stating that India’s options were limited, Prof Staniland said Modi can try to reach out to Pakistani civilian leaders in hopes of splitting them from a skeptical military, but this has been India’s strategy in the past with little success.

“‘Spoilers’ like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba have repeatedly undermined India-Pakistan rapprochement. Pakistan’s powerful army seems to be in no mood for a deal with New Delhi, viewing India as a rising power now run by a Hindu chauvinist, and regularly alleging that India is supporting militant groups along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Simmering civil-military tensions over media freedom and policy toward the TTP have limited Sharif’s ability to deliver on policy change,” he wrote.

“India cannot credibly threaten military retaliation. As Vipin Narang (assistant professor of political science at MIT) has shown, Pakistan’s mixture of conventional and nuclear forces is intended to rapidly escalate any conflict, making Indian ground or even air strikes extremely risky. Protracted crises, as in 2001-2, would achieve little beyond further undermining a troubled economy. Indian leaders have little faith in America’s ability to influence Pakistan, instead seeing the US as complicit in bolstering Pakistan’s military power and regional ambitions. American policy is shot through with ambivalence: it finds itself supporting the Pakistan Army’s offensives against some militants in North Waziristan even while opposing its support for other militants in Afghanistan.”

In the face of these constraints, Prof Stganiland wrote, “We are likely to see a two-pronged Indian strategy. First, outreach to Pakistan’s civilians will continue. Modi has a commanding majority and hard-liner credibility that limit his vulnerability to domestic criticism. Sharif is believed to be interested in improving ties with India, and there is always a chance that he and Modi can craft some forward progress.

“Second, India is likely to expand its overseas intelligence operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The foreign policy advisers linked to Modi are experienced bureaucrats who know from bitter experience that neither dialogue nor aggressive coercive diplomacy has borne fruit. Instead, they are likely to advocate policies that can impose costs on Pakistan without triggering large-scale crises.

The American scholar pointed to the hawkish views of former Indian officials - Syam Saran, Ajiy Doval abnd Kanwal Sibal - who are likely to be in Modi’s security team, and said they will probably push to expand Indian intelligence activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “This would be a return to the more expansive (and at times, as in 1980s Sri Lanka, counterproductive) Indian footprint in the region that existed prior to former Prime Minister IK Gujral’s decision in the late 1990s to de-emphasize covert operations,” he said.

Prof Staniland wrote, “India faces tough decisions about how to proceed in Afghanistan, and the Modi team seems more likely to hold the line, or up the ante, than back down. It will maintain an unyielding position on Kashmir, which it sees as linked to the broader regional competition, even if this exacerbates anti-India sentiment within the Kashmir Valley.

“There is a risk that this approach would play into the hands of the Pakistani Army and various militant groups who thrive on India-Pakistan tension, but the emerging Modi government is dissatisfied with the status quo. It will seek a way around the current strategic stalemate that avoids major conflict without having passively absorb punishment like the Herat attack. Rather than a hot war along the India-Pakistan border and Line of Control, we may see an escalating shadow war, uncomfortably paired with continuing diplomatic outreach that further knits together South Asia’s internal and external conflicts.”

A New Delhi-datelined dispatch in The New York Times noted that the “mutual gesture” of Indian invitation and Islamabad’s attending Monday’s ceremony at the prime ministerial level “may mark a turning point in the relations between the two countries, which have been particularly frosty since early 2013.”

The United States, meanwhile, has expressed support for increased Pakistan-India dialogue, with a State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki saying earlier this week “we welcome increased engagement between India and Pakistan and their leaders.”

In their reports on the South Asian development, the American newspapers also referred to long-running tensions between the two nuclear power neighbours over Jammu and Kashmir dispute. The reports also noted that Modi – who has been severely criticized for failure to stop 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat but is also acknowledged for bringing development to his state- is seen as being strong enough – in comparison with previous Congress party government- to go for a peace effort with Pakistan after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide election win this month.

The Post quoted officials from both countries.

“For the next five years, BJP would rule India and we would have to deal with it,” Information Minister Senator Pervaiz Rashid, told journalists in Lahore. “We want peace for our next generations, and that is why we want to engage India in dialogue. We want good neighbourly relations with India.”

Nirmala Sitaraman, spokeswoman for Modi’s party in India, said that party officials were “happy” to hear of Sharif’s “goodwill gesture.”

The New York Times in its report noted that an effort to build economic and diplomatic ties between Pakistan and India ended in early 2013, when fighting along the disputed border in Kashmir derailed a tentative attempt to build economic and diplomatic ties.

“I think it would be a good thing,” the paper quoted Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and political analyst.

The paper cited Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tasneem Aslam as stressing Islamabad’s point that the dialogue must be uninterrupted.

 “We expect that when the new government takes over in India, realizing the importance of having peace in the neighborhood, the dialogue process between Pakistan and India will resume, and that it will be a meaningful and constructive dialogue,” she said.

“We expect this dialogue to be uninterrupted and uninterruptible.”

The Post also said within hours of the announcement, opposition to Sharif’s visit was building up in Pakistan.

Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the leader of the anti-India Jamaat-ud-Dawa, told reporters Modi’s decisive victory should serve as a warning to Pakistanis that India is “not a secular country.”

“The new Indian prime minister holds extremist views and we can’t ignore this fact,” Saeed said. “Sharif must review his decision to attend.”

Javed Ashraf Qazi, a former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, also questioned Sharif’s plans. “Mr Modi has so far been hostile to Pakistan. Look at his election campaign and his speeches,” Qazi told the Post. “He has not come up with any positive gesture. I don’t understand why then our prime minister is in a rush to go there. What good would it bring to Pakistan, to its people?”

The Times said Modi, a Hindu nationalist, who promised in his campaign to make India a “more muscular presence on the world stage has broken new ground by inviting top officials from all the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to Monday’s swearing-in, which has traditionally not included any foreign leaders.”–Reuters