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Will Nawaz Sharif walk the talk on India?

By Sushant Sareen
Last updated on: May 16, 2013 15:42 IST

If Pakistan’s new government lives up to the commitments given by Nawaz Sharif that he will not allow Pakistan’s soil to be used against India and will put the jihadist networks out of business, it will create a lot of space for the next government in India to move forward on the bilateral track, says Sushant Sareen

The victory of Mian Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan’s general elections has been viewed with cautious optimism in India. Hope and expectation that perhaps this time things might be different between India and Pakistan are tempered by the realisation that Nawaz Sharif is going to be enmeshed by enormous problems and constraints and he won’t have much space available for taking any bold initiative with India.

At the same time, there is also a sense that Nawaz Sharif’s expressed keenness to normalise relations with India is not so much because he has turned into some kind of an Indophile, but more because he sees in India the answer to many of the problems -- political, economic and strategic -- that pose an existential threat to his country. 

It isn’t as though Nawaz Sharif has suddenly realised the importance of India. Nor is it the case that his charm offensive towards India is only for the sake of form. The fact is that even during his last stint as prime Minister 1997-99, he had tried to break the logjam and more than the Composite Dialogue process or the Lahore bus diplomacy, it was in the back-channel talks between trusted confidants of Nawaz Sharif and Atal Bihari Vajpayee that a serious political effort was made to solve the outstanding problems between the two countries. That the whole initiative collapsed, first because of Kargil and then because of the Musharraf coup is well known.

Following the coup in 1999, Nawaz Sharif is believed to have been disappointed by India’s fascination with Musharraf and the fact that until he returned to political relevance in 2008, India seemed to have forgotten about him and considered him irrelevant. Even though some people in India kept advising the powers that be to keep a line open to Nawaz Sharif during his years in wilderness, the general attitude of the policymakers in New Delhi was that Nawaz Sharif is history and that it was a waste of time to cultivate him.

How little the Indian establishment knows about Pakistan can be gauged from just two things: first, even when a child on the streets of Lahore and Islamabad could have told you that Musharraf was damaged goods after his tiff with the judiciary, the then Indian national security advisor was brave enough to say in a TV interview that Musharraf had passed the hump and was now secure; second, the hype in India over Musharraf’s return from exile earlier this year was a display of sheer ignorance because it was as clear as daylight that Musharraf was indeed history.

Fortunately for India, Nawaz Sharif is the sort of person who once convinced about something doesn’t easily change his mind. And it appears that he is convinced about normalising relations with India. Whether he succeeds in this endeavour or falls in the process is altogether another matter. 

While Nawaz Sharif’s recent overtures to India -- assuring that he would not allow another Kargil or 26/11 attack, talking about an holding an enquiry into both these incidents and sharing details with India, saying that he would like to visit India even if he didn’t receive a formal invitation, hinting at inviting the Indian PM to attend his swearing-in -- have received a lot of attention, more so because many of these things he said on the eve of an election that was seen as being too close to call and these statements could have damaged his party’s prospects at the hustings. But then Nawaz Sharif has been making the right noises on India for quite some time now.

From suggesting that Pakistan should start withdrawing troops from Siachen without waiting for India to do the same, to talking about the common cultural heritage and likes and dislikes of the two peoples (something that most Pakistani politicians will never say publicly), Nawaz Sharif has said things that other Pakistani politicians wouldn’t be caught dead saying. What is more, despite the chagrin this has caused in his core right-wing, conservative constituency, and the glee his apparent boo-boos evoked among many of his detractors, he hasn’t been deterred by criticism nor has he backtracked on anything he has said.

It would be a mistake to dismiss his statements as a sign of his impetuousness or worse, simple politeness without meaning anything he said. Nothing matures a politician more than spending a stint in prison as a political prisoner. Add to this a spell of exile, and generally what you get is a leader who has had the luxury of being able to think things more deeply and reach a level of understanding which is not possible in the normal rough and tumble of everyday politics.

Of course, there are exceptions, and Nawaz Sharif’s bête noire Gen Pervez Musharraf is one person who doesn’t seem to have learnt anything from his years in exile. Nawaz Sharif on the other hand has emerged as a statesman (something he demonstrated by resisting the temptation to pull down the previous government by hook or by crook), and not only has he mellowed and matured as a politician, he is also no longer the impulsive man with a short attention span that he was during his last tenure as prime minister. This means that while he will be very clear headed about what he wants to achieve, he is expected to go about his task in a very calibrated and calculated manner.

For Nawaz Sharif, India is a sort of magic bullet that can solve many of his problems. If he can normalise relations with India, it will serve as a shot in the arm for his policy of establishing civilian supremacy over the army and reducing the army’s role in domestic politics and foreign policy making. Economic engagement with India will help not just in giving a fillip to the ailing Pakistan economy but also play a big role in enhancing investor confidence. After all, if Pakistan is seen as a safe investment destination by the Indians then surely it must be seen as a safe destination by other countries. Opening trade with India will create an incentive for some MNCs to use Pakistan as a base to export goods to India.

With relations improving, and stakes developing, the Pakistan army will find it difficult to use the India bogey to justify its domination in the political system. A normalised relationship with India will also help in forging a more sensible policy on Afghanistan. Instead of the current policy which is based on backing the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine to counter Indian influence in Kabul, there is a possibility of Pakistan and India working together to stabilise Afghanistan.

Such a policy shift will not only pave the way for opening trade and energy routes through Pakistan and Afghanistan to and from Central Asia and beyond (with obvious economic benefits for the Afghan and Pakistani economies) but also help in bringing moderation in an increasingly Islamised and radicalised Pakistani society. This in turn will increase the space for the Pakistan government to act forcefully against the jihadists inside that country who also use the India card to peddle their hate trade.

All this is of course theory, and is easier said than done. Nawaz Sharif, by reaching out to India, might have fired the opening salvo in his quest to meet the challenge of civil-military relations and establish civilian supremacy. But there is a long and dangerous path full of minefields that he must tread to reach his destination. Both State (read Army and ISI) and non-State actors working either at the behest of the state or autonomously will almost certainly try to sabotage his India initiative.

Remember, soon after Asif Zardari made some quite revolutionary statements on no first use of nuclear weapons and putting the Kashmir issue on the backburner, the 26/11 attacks were launched. There could be something similar again, perhaps not of the same magnitude but enough to disrupt any initiative.

The other problem that any peace initiative will face is that Nawaz Sharif’s counterpart in India just doesn’t have any political capital left to respond appropriately. Heading a weak and tottering government plagued by scandals, Dr Manmohan Singh might be inclined to make a gamble on Pakistan as a last throw of the dice, but his party will be very chary and reluctant to let his do this lest this also backfires.

In any case, the window of opportunity for re-engaging with Pakistan is very small, not more than a couple of months. By around September, the political climate in India will heat up with four crucial state elections due in November and once those end, the country will slip into election mode for the 2014 general election. This means that any serious political re-engagement will not be possible before mid-2014. By this time, India will get a fairly good idea about the direction in which the Nawaz Sharif government is moving especially in areas of critical concern to India like terrorism, Afghanistan, operationalising trade agreements.

If Pakistan’s new government lives up to the commitments given by Nawaz Sharif that he will not allow Pakistan’s soil to be used against India and will put the jihadist networks out of business, it will create a lot of space for the next government in India to move forward on the bilateral track. But if Nawaz Sharif adopts a parallel policy in which on one track he does all the right things on the trade and people-to-people front but on a parallel track turns a blind eye to activities of the jihadist mafia (especially because of his close links with some of these groups), then it will not inspire any confidence in India about his sincerity in improving relations.

While India was willing to live with such a parallel policy in the past, today such shenanigans will not work, especially with Indian public opinion on a very short fuse. In the event of a parallel policy approach, it will be only a matter of time before some major terrorist incident takes place which, at the very least, will abort the peace initiative. But if Pakistan is seen to be moving against the jihadist groups, then even if an incident was to take place, there will be a lot of restraint shown by India, because it will understand that this happened despite the best efforts of the Pakistani authorities.

Clearly, if Nawaz Sharif walks the talk, and does the things he needs to do, there could be a paradigm change in the state of relations between the two countries. But if all his nice words are only that, then all bets are off on the India-Pakistan track and all that will happen is the past of one step forward and two backward repeating itself.

Sushant Sareen