Cautious optimism

New Delhi welcomes the election results but remains unsure whether Nawaz Sharif will be able to defy his fundamentalist support base and improve his country's relations with India.

Published : May 29, 2013 12:30 IST

Indian soldiers patrol past a barbed wire fence near the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, in Silikot, some 130 km north of Srinagar, in January when a series of tit-for-tat attacks threatened to ratchet up bilateral tensions. With Nawaz Sharif returning to power, there is hope in India that relations will improve.

Indian soldiers patrol past a barbed wire fence near the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, in Silikot, some 130 km north of Srinagar, in January when a series of tit-for-tat attacks threatened to ratchet up bilateral tensions. With Nawaz Sharif returning to power, there is hope in India that relations will improve.

NAWAZ SHARIF’S return to power in Pakistan has been welcomed in India. New Delhi would have no doubt been relieved that the “electoral tsunami” some commentators had predicted did not materialise. A sweeping victory for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) would have meant the creation of new equations in Islamabad. The PTI, according to reports, had the tacit support of the Pakistani Taliban and sections of the Army that have been radicalised in the past decade. For that matter, even Sharif’s Muslim League in Punjab was the beneficiary of votes from those supporting militant groupings. One of the first statements Sharif made after the elections was on the need to start a dialogue process with the militant groups waging war against the state of Pakistan.

At the same time, in the run-up to the elections, Sharif had made it a point to stress repeatedly the great importance he attached to improving bilateral ties with India. Sharif is a known political personality as he has already served twice before as Prime Minister. Though he began his career as a protege of the late dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, he acquired a political style of his own during his second term in office. He had dared to take on the Pakistani military establishment. The military chief at the time, General Pervez Musharraf, retaliated by staging a coup and packing Sharif off to jail.

Sharif as Prime Minister brought about a short-lived diplomatic thaw with India when he invited his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to Lahore in 1998. The first “friendship” bus service connecting Delhi and Lahore was started during that historic visit.

The Kargil episode, which was soon followed by the retaking of power by the military, under Musharraf, resulted in the souring of bilateral relations yet again. Sharif has always maintained that he was not aware that Pakistani troops and infiltrators had been clandestinely deployed across the Line of Control (LoC).

Terror attacks originating from Pakistan, particularly the one on India’s Parliament House, had led to a war-like situation arising between the two countries. Relations did improve after Musharraf, then the military ruler, offered meaningful concessions on a host of issues bedevilling bilateral ties, including a proposal to settle the Kashmir issue without the existing borders being disturbed. It is another matter that the Indian government chose not to accept the offer from the military strongman. Indian officials at the time wanted to wrest more concessions from the Pakistani government, which was under pressure from its main political and economic benefactor, the United States, to make peace with India and settle the Kashmir issue.

After the events of September 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration started viewing the terror-related issues in Kashmir and Afghanistan as interconnected. The Bush administration’s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, was specially tasked to deal with the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Kashmir problem.

Other bilateral issues such as those relating to Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek were on the verge of being resolved. Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto had agreed way back in the late 1980s to find a mutually acceptable solution to the Siachen issue by demilitarising the area and were on the verge of signing an agreement. In the last decade, too, false hopes were raised about an imminent resolution to the two relatively minor issues of Siachen and Sir Creek. India-Pakistan bilateral relations got off to a bad start when the civilian government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) took office as it coincided with the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, the biggest terror strike on Indian soil. It was only in the last two years that visits at the level of Foreign Ministers were exchanged.

The Indian Prime Minster’s visit to Pakistan is long overdue. One of the first things that Sharif did after the election results were announced was to request Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan at the earliest. “We will pick up the threads from where we left in 1999. That is the road map I have for improvement of relations between Pakistan and India,” he told the media. Manmohan Singh was quick to respond. The people of India “welcome your publicly articulated commitment to a relationship between Pakistan and India that is defined by peace, friendship and cooperation”, he said in his reply. Sharif requested the Indian leader’s presence at his swearing-in ceremony.

Manmohan Singh is known to be personally keen on strengthening bilateral relations. India, however, has not announced even tentative dates for the Prime Minister’s much-delayed official visit to Pakistan. To explain this, New Delhi cites Islamabad’s refusal to allow access to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chief, Hafiz Saeed, for questioning in connection with the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and the general lack of cooperation from the Pakistani authorities on terrorism-related issues. The Americans have announced a $1-million reward for the capture of the LeT chief, but he remains active in Pakistani politics.

Before the elections, Sharif had promised to order an inquiry into the alleged role of state agencies in the terror attacks against India, especially the 2008 Mumbai attack, and investigate the motives behind the military attack on Kargil. Whether the rhetoric will be translated into reality is to be seen as much of the support for Sharif came from hard-line Islamists and other conservative elements in Pakistani politics that do not care for India and, more importantly, the U.S. Sharif on the campaign trail railed against American drone attacks on Pakistani targets and pledged to bring an end to them.

The Kashmir issue, for the foreseeable future, will remain the core issue for Pakistan as far as relations with India are concerned. Reports appearing in the Pakistani media have suggested that the Pakistani military establishment has already warned Sharif against cosying up to Delhi without first extracting concessions regarding talks relating to Kashmir. Sharif so far, at least for public consumption, is adopting a tough posture vis-a-vis the army leadership. He has said that he is determined to exercise full civilian control over the Army establishment and prevent anti-India activity on Pakistani soil.

Sharif’s priority is to boost the beleaguered Pakistani economy, and good relations with India are essential to achieve this goal. On the campaign trail, he had promised to “fix the economy” and rebuild Pakistan. Pakistan has in the last decade been adversely impacted by the American occupation of Afghanistan and the spillover of the insurgency into the country. To make matters worse, the country was devastated by floods in two consecutive years. Industry has been badly affected by daily power outages, while the currency has been steadily depreciating. Sharif has an uphill task ahead of him on the economic front. Increased trade with India, many Pakistani economists and politicians are convinced, would be a boost for the country’s economy. Trade between the two countries is currently estimated at $2 billion annually. There is scope for bilateral trade going up manifold if political relations improve.

Pakistan had finally granted India the status of “Most Favoured Nation” (MFN) in 2011, but the Pakistani domestic business elite is still wary about being swamped by Indian competitors. According to the Indian government, the PPP government had not really allowed Indian companies and goods free access to Pakistan. New Delhi is waiting for the new government to implement the MFN status for India on the ground. One of Sharif’s grandiose goals is to help put in place a regional economic infrastructure that will include a highway connecting Afghanistan, Pakistan and India—a Kabul-to-Kolkata highway. One way that the two sides could immediately give a fillip to bilateral trade is by opening more border posts for trading. Right now, only the trading post in Wagah is operational.

There is also great scope for energy cooperation between the two countries. Pakistan right now wants to import energy from India to meet its acute power shortfall. But in the longer term, the gas pipeline from Iran, which will soon reach Pakistan, can be extended to India. Iran has for long been trying to sell the idea of an Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. Iran has one of the largest reserves of gas in the world but the marketing of the commodity has been curtailed by the draconian American sanctions imposed on the country. The previous PPP-led government in Pakistan had shown immense courage in defying American diktats and going ahead with the project. India, too, can do likewise.

Sharif’s major priority besides the improvement of relations with India is finding a solution to the problem of insurgency and terrorism that has its roots on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Pakistani military and sections of the political establishment have also blamed India for helping Balochi separatists. New Delhi had virtually accepted a role when a joint India-Pakistan statement at the Cairo Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit four years ago mentioned the Balochistan issue along with Kashmir. Since then, New Delhi seems to have considerably scaled down its covert help for the Balochi separatists.

However, the Balochi separatist movement shows no signs of giving up its struggle, which first erupted in a big way in the early 1970s. The strategic port of Gwadar is located in the Balochistan province.

With the endgame approaching in Afghanistan as the American occupation forces prepare to depart, India and Pakistan are both waiting and watching the fast-unfolding developments. The visit of the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, to India in May is being viewed as part of the political and diplomatic manoeuvres going on in the subcontinent. Islamabad has been suspicious of India’s high-profile role in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban from power in Kabul. The Pakistani military establishment continues to view Afghanistan as being under its zone of influence and as a provider of “strategic depth”.

Until now India has confined its role mainly to developing infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. India has invested more than $2 billion in development aid for the country. In the last couple of years, India has provided training to Afghan police and army officers. Now, with relations between Kabul and Islamabad deteriorating again, there have been requests from the Afghan government for arms supplies from India. The two countries signed an agreement in 2011 under which India had agreed to assist in “training, equipping and capacity building” for the Afghan National Security Forces. The Afghan Army is mainly non-Pashtun. The Taliban’s support is mostly confined to the majority Pashtuns, who populate the areas bordering Pakistan. Karzai, during his latest visit, once again requested the Indian government to play a greater role in his country after the scheduled departure of the Americans. “We had a wish list [for weapons] that we have presented to India. Now it is up to them to decide,” Karzai told the media in Delhi. Indian officials were, however, quick to assert that no decisions on the subject had been made. Karzai has been saying that the Afghan Taliban is still being supported by Pakistan and that its key leaders, like Mullah Omar, are under the protection of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He even alleged that Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri was also under the protection of the ISI inside Pakistan.

The evolving Indian role in Afghanistan will be keenly watched in Pakistan. The Taliban is expected to launch an all-out offensive once the American forces depart. Karzai told his interlocutors in New Delhi that talks with the Taliban for a peaceful resolution of the conflict were progressing well but added that there was no question of acceding to the Taliban’s demand to change the constitution. Some experts are even predicting a replay of the 1990s scenario in Afghanistan, when India, along with Russia and Iran, lined up with the “Northern Alliance”, consisting of Afghan Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other minorities against the Pakistan-supported Taliban. For better relations with Pakistan, India will have to tread in the Afghan minefield carefully.

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