The President of the PML(N) Nawaz Sharif is all set to become Pakistan’s next Prime Minister. Both before and after the elections, Sharif was quick to send messages of peace and friendship with India promising to start from where he had left in 1999, when he was unceremoniously thrown out of power by Gen Pervaiz Musharraf. Earlier, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulated Mr Nawaz Sharif on the latter’s victory in Pakistan’s elections and invited him to visit India. The BJP in India has also welcomed the move. Will Nawaz’s tenure as the Prime Minister of Pakistan herald a new beginning in India-Pakistan relations?
The relationship between the two countries had deteriorated in the recent past especially after the beheading of an Indian soldier by the Pakistani troops in Jammu and Kashmir, and the fatal attacks on Chamel Singh and Sarabjit Singh, the Indian prisoners held in Pakistani jail. There is no progress on the trial of 26/11 Mumbai terror attack suspects some of who are till date freely roaming in Pakistan. Pakistani establishment’s link to this incident has made this trial complicated. The public opinion in India has been inflamed at the intransigence of the Pakistani government. It must be noted, however, Nawaz Sharif has refrained from speaking about prosecuting the 26/11 perpetrators. Before the elections he said that he would examine allegations of ISI involvement in the 26/11 attacks and investigate Kargil. This is not going to be an easy task. It has been reported in the Pakistani media that the security establishment is uneasy over his victory in the elections. Moreover, given his links to the anti-India militant organization the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and its militant wing the LeT, it remains to be seen whether Sharif would be able to satisfy India on 26/11 trials.
Nawaz Sharif’s sentiments for better relationship with India are laudable and should be welcomed. However, there are still constituencies within Pakistan for whom Kashmir remains the core issue. The larger question is whether Sharif will be able to bring the army on board. His first task would be to manage a suspicious army with whom his relationship has been highly strained. The army is unlikely to give up its influence and say on Pakistan’s key foreign policy and security concerns. Anti-India jihadi constituencies in Pakistan are still very strong. They would do anything to prevent the normalization of relations with India. To assure India of his good intentions, he has offered a number of positives. Sharif stated that he will not allow anti-India “speeches to be made against India by anybody including Hafeez Saab”. But it is an acknowledged fact that he does not have any control over the militant groups operating in Kashmir who are Pakistani intelligence agency’s protégée. He also said that he “will not allow terrorism to be exported to India from Pakistani soil.” On being asked whether the army would act as a spoiler in India-Pakistan relations, Sharif boldly stated that “I am determined to restore the authority of the Prime Minister’s office. The Army will report to the Prime Minister, who is the boss.” In spite of such assurances, there are several powerful actors and vested interests that shape Pakistan’s India policy. Therefore, while Nawaz Sharif may be genuinely interested in promoting good relations with India, whether he would be allowed to do so is a big question.
Nevertheless, India should factor in the changing environment in Pakistan and respond positively to Sharif’s early gestures. Nawaz Sharif and Atal Bihari Vajpai had taken a bold decision to bring about a thaw in bilateral relationship soon after the 1998 nuclear tests even though the Pakistan army was clandestinely engaged in executing Kargil on India. One would hope that given the popularity of Nawaz Sharif at the hustings, the military would not repeat its earlier mistake and would tolerate, if not sabotage, Sharif’s attempts to normalise India and Pakistan relations.
Moreover, the prevailing economic imperatives in Pakistan will call for closer economic ties with India. Sharif needs to take further steps to operationalise the decision taken by the previous government to grant MFN status to India. A trade delegation consisting of major Indian industrial houses led by Commerce Minister Anand Sharma visited Pakistan last year to explore trade and investment opportunities. India has already lifted the ban on investments from Pakistan and Pakistani investors have also visited India to explore business opportunities. Pakistani businessmen who were lobbying for greater economic ties and in the past had met General Kayani to seek the army’s blessing are particularly enthusiastic about Nawaz’s return to power. The scope for greater trade is evident from the fact that between April 2012 and March 2013, Pakistan saw a 28 per cent increase in its export to India. It is likely that Pakistan will make further gains in the future once it confers MFN status on India. Pakistan’s electricity woes to some extent can be addressed by implementing the earlier Indian offer of selling 500 MW of electricity to Pakistan. Given Nawaz Sharif’s image as pro-trade, pro-investment person, he can be expected to step up Indo-Pak economic and commercial ties.
Some sections of Pakistani society see benefits in better relations with India. Many supporters of democracy in Pakistan have looked towards India for support. They feel any bilateral tension between them is not in the interest of democratic regimes in Pakistan as it will be used as a handle to bring unnecessary pressure on the civilian government. They also believe that Nawaz Sharif with his right wing constituency can deliver peace with India. Nawaz is also working on his relationship with the army by trying to make a distinction between, what he believes, the individual action of the former army chief Musharraf for staging the coup and the army as a professional institution.
Democracy is beginning to take roots in Pakistan though there are enormous challenges ahead. If Nawaz Sharif begins to address some of India’s concerns on the issue of cross-border terrorism, India should naturally respond positively. As a cheek-by-jowl neighbour of Pakistan, it would be useful for India to hold the hand of friendship extended by Sharif. However, both sides would need to proceed with caution as it would be counter-productive to raise expectations and be disappointed later. A window of opportunity has opened up. Nawaz Sharif can herald a new phase in Indo-Pak relations but both the sides keep their fingers crossed.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.