The Indian government should resist the temptation to make a grand gesture of friendship towards Nawaz Sharif, says Shyam Saran
The leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, Nawaz Sharif, has received a decisive and powerful mandate from the Pakistani electorate in the recently concluded elections. He has publicly committed himself to improving relations with India, picking up the threads from 1999, when he played host to the then Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, at a summit in Lahore.
The Lahore spirit of peace and reconciliation between the two countries swiftly evaporated on the heights of Kargil, where the armed forces of the two sides fought a limited but bloody war. How real are the prospects of Pakistan under Nawaz Sharif picking up the pieces again with the Indian prime minister, who is convinced that peace with Pakistan remains an essential condition for India’s own march towards an enhanced regional and global role?
It may be worthwhile to look at what is unlikely to change in Pakistan’s posture towards India.
One, Kashmir will remain the “core issue” for Pakistan. It figures in the PML-N manifesto, and Sharif has reiterated his intention to put Kashmir on the bilateral agenda. In fact, giving prominence to the Kashmir issue will help him deflect and dilute the Pakistani army’s well-known opposition to him. It would also reassure his constituency of right-wing and religious elements, including jihadi groups such as the Lashkar-e-Tauiba. For this reason, one should be sceptical of him delivering on his promises to investigate the Kargil war or the Mumbai terrorist attack.
Two, given PML-N’s close association with jihadi and fundamentalist groups, it is unlikely that serious curbs would be put on them. In fact, some of these groups may well feel emboldened by the PML-N’s assumption of political power. Thus, there is unlikely to be a clear break from the long-standing policy of using cross-border terrorism as an instrument of State policy -- although in seeking to improve relations with India, they may be put under more strict constraint. We may expect calculated remission but no elimination of the threat of jihadi terror.
Three, Sharif has been reticent about his party’s views on the Afghan Taliban or on how he sees Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. It is not only the Pakistani army but even the political-bureaucratic elite in the country that believes that Pakistan deserves a proprietary role in Afghanistan and that the 2014 US withdrawal offers an opening to enhance Pakistan’s strategic relevance both regionally and globally. India has had no place in Pakistan’s vision of a future Afghanistan and this is unlikely to change.
Four, Pakistan’s alliance with China and its “all-weather friendship” with that country will remain intact. The India focus of the Sino-Pak nexus is unlikely to diminish.
Within these continuing constraints, there could still be prospects for positive change in India-Pakistan relations and these ought to be pursued. On the Indian side, it would be necessary to rein in the temptation to seek a thorough makeover of bilateral relations through dramatic, though mostly atmospheric, gestures.
India and Pakistan have different historical narratives. Each milestone in our bilateral relations is interpreted differently in our two countries. This disconnect can change only slowly and incrementally. Hence the best policy to adopt is to seek improved relations in small doses, whose cumulative impact over a period may still be substantive. We should learn from the experience of Kargil and other similar instances.
Grand gestures on either side or an attempt to depart significantly from the established narrative are usually followed by a deliberate and often violent effort to reverse any perceived improvement in relations. It would be far better to move in measured and graduated steps to expand bilateral engagement and mutual trust and confidence. In this context, promoting trade and investment, further liberalising travel, encouraging people-to-people relations, may appear to be a modest agenda, but perhaps more sustainable.
The consolidation of civilian democracy in Pakistan is to be welcomed wholeheartedly and there should be a readiness on India’s part to explore whatever opportunities emerge for promoting peace between our two countries. This should be done even though the overall narrative continues to be adversarial.
While pursuing such opportunities, it should be ensured that we keep a careful watch on how the adversarial continuities referred to earlier in this column play themselves out. Any positive change in atmospherics is welcome, but this should never disarm our ability or willingness to confront developments that undermine our vital interests.
Inviting Sharif to visit India was a good move by our prime minister, but substantive progress in our relations will need to be pursued with a careful mix of patience and caution. There continues to be a risk that cross-border terrorist attacks by hostile jihadi groups in Pakistan will derail any substantive progress towards peace and co-operation between the two countries.
Unless the new government in Islamabad abandons the use of terrorism as an instrument of State policy, India-Pakistan relations will continue to follow the pattern of dialogue-disruption-dialogue.
Will Nawaz Sharif have the will and courage to break out of this pernicious pattern of the past by putting the jihadi elements out to pasture? That will be the real test from the Indian perspective.
The writer is a former foreign secretary. He is currently Chairman, RIS, and Senior Fellow, CPR