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21 May, 2013

Way forward in South Asia

 BRP Bhaskar
 Gulf Today

Cautious optimism illumines Indian and Pakistani assessment of the prospects of bilateral relations under Nawaz Sharif who is back at the helm in Islamabad after 16 long years.

In 1999, as prime minister, Sharif had taken a decisive step towards improved relations with India when he signed the Lahore declaration with his Indian counterpart, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Their Lahore meeting was made possible by Vajpayee’s tradition-breaking bus journey to Pakistan.

The peace process they initiated was interrupted by the then chief of the Pakistan army, Pervez Musharraf, who first engineered a bloody conflict on the icy heights of Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir and then ousted Sharif and sent him into exile. As military ruler, Musharraf later met Vajpayee to carry the process forward but the attempt failed.

Even before the election results, which brought him to power for the third time, became known Sharif expressed his desire to make a new beginning, telling visiting Indian mediapersons he would pick up the thread from where he had left it in 1999.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, reciprocating the sentiment, warmly greeted Sharif, whose return to office marks transfer of power from one civilian government to another through elections for the first time in Pakistan’s history. However, he let go an opportunity to transform word into deed when he decided not to accept Sharif’s invitation to attend his swearing-in ceremony.

The Indian diplomatic establishment, overlooking the symbolic value of a break with tradition, advised against a prime ministerial visit to Pakistan without first preparing the ground at official level meetings.

The political climate also was not conducive for Manmohan Singh to take a bold initiative. In dealing with Pakistan, he does not have the freedom of action which Vajpayee, as leader of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, had. Any positive gesture by him is sure to invite charges of appeasement from the BJP, which has been calling for action against Pakistan in the light of the beheading of two Indian soldiers who had strayed across the line of control in Kashmir and the fatal attack on an Indian prisoner in a Lahore jail.

Discussing India-Pakistan relations, Farrukh Khan Pitafi, a young, liberal Pakistani columnist, recently wrote: “We have spent far too much energy in trying to weaken each other. As a result, India has not been able to realise its true potential and the Pakistani state has gone soft.” He reckoned that the time between now and next year’s Indian parliamentary elections provides a window of opportunity to mend relations.

However, it is unrealistic to expect any dramatic developments. Domestic compulsions will not allow Manmohan Singh to take any initiative on the eve of the elections. Sharif, too, has his limitations.

Pakistan’s immediate need is revival of its economy, which is in a terrible state, prompting some observers to talk of it as a failed state. Improved relations with India can offer Sharif a double advantage. It can help reduce military expenditure and boost bilateral trade and facilitate inflow of investment.

However, there are elements in Pakistan which are wary of such developments. The military, which lay low during the past five years but cannot be said to have reconciled itself to the idea of civilian supremacy, will not want expenditure cuts. Army Chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has reportedly advised Sharif to move gradually and with the utmost caution in trying to improve ties with India.

Pakistani businessmen are apprehensive of steps that may open up the possibilities of Indian economic domination. The last government decided to grant India most favoured nation treatment but was unable to take the necessary follow-up measures.

Sharif owes his electoral victory to the massive support that he and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, command in Punjab province, which accounts for more than half of the country’s population. But, then, there are limits to his hold on this province, which is also the stronghold of the army and of various extremist groups, some of which enjoy the patronage of a section of the army.

The extremists made their own contribution to the PML-N victory by sparing its men when they trained their guns on campaigners to discourage voting. However, Sharif cannot overlook the fact that the people rejected their call to boycott the poll.

India and Pakistan, which have been bogged down in Kashmir for long, may be able to find a way forward if they can work together on Afghanistan to ensure stability in South Asia after US troops pull out of that country next year. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 21, 2013

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