Features | Politics | South Asia

A New Opportunity for Indo-Pakistan Relations?

The recent election of Nawaz Sharif raises hopes, but hardliners in both countries remain a hurdle.

By Nitin A. Gokhale for
A New Opportunity for Indo-Pakistan Relations?
Credit: Wikicommons

In January this year, U.S. think tank the New America Foundation played host to 30-odd Indians and Pakistanis in Dubai. The idea was to share knowledge and ideas, understand prevailing challenges and issues, identify common points of collaboration, and collectively suggest the next steps for policy, strategy, research, and action.

Delegates to the closed-door conference included representatives from the military, public and private institutes, think tanks, media, and non-profit organizations.

The conversations covered issues of common interest to the two countries, including trade, business, microfinance, IT, water, energy, climate change, public health, security, and media. This writer was part of the conference as a delegate from India.

Hosted by well-known authors and journalists Steve Coll and Peter Bergen, the two-day conference came up with the following key recommendations:

  • Facilitate cross-border exchange visits, both academic and person-to-person.
  • In terms of academia, organize trans-border inter-collegiate exchange programs.
  • Geographically, foster interaction across cities in the border states.
  • Provide a platform for collaborative research between various actors in Pakistan and India. This may involve a joint think tank or cross-border research on issues such as energy, trade, and microfinance.

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Five months later, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Prime Minister-in-waiting, after winning the landmark elections held on 11 May, is speaking along similar lines. He wants to increase bilateral trade with India to improve Pakistan’s own economy, push for more people to people contacts and is in favor of a more liberalized visa regime.

Nawaz Sharif also wants lasting peace with India, reprising an effort he made in 1999. In fact, in one of the first media interactions after his election victory, Sharif told reporters: ““We will pick up the threads from where we left in 1999… That is the roadmap that I have for improvement of relations between Pakistan and India.”

In interview after interview with Indian journalists, Nawaz’s central theme was his wish and plan for normal relations with India. Indian media and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government also hailed Nawaz Sharif’s victory. Singh has made peace with Pakistan one of his “core” themes during his nine years in office, despite a brazen attack by Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiyba (LeT) terrorists on the commercial city of Mumbai in November 2008 that left over 160 people dead. Singh immediately sent Sharif a message congratulating him on the election win: “… “(people of India) welcome your publicly articulated commitment to a relationship between India and Pakistan that is defined by peace, friendship and cooperation.”

Both Singh and Sharif will, however, have to contend with hardliners back home before they can make any moves to reduce the existing trust deficit between the two countries.

In Pakistan, in particular, no civilian leader has been able to practice an India policy independent of the country’s powerful military. Last time, in 1999, Nawaz Sharif tried to break new ground by initiating a friendship bus that travelled from Delhi to Lahore. A new era, it seemed, was about to begin.

Within months, however, Pakistan Army then led by Gen Pervez Musharraf, sabotaged the initiative by sending troops into Indian-held Kashmir, which led to the Kargil conflict. Musharraf’s ploy of dressing up Pakistan Army regulars as Mujahideens (Freedom fighters) was exposed once the Indian Army began to push back the intruders. US President Bill Clinton summoned Sharif to Washington and asked to withdraw the Pakistani Army troops from Kargil even as the Indians gained the upper hand. A humiliated Sharif returned home only to be ousted through a bloodless coup by Musharraf. The Saudis negotiated Sharif’s exile.

Today, the tables have turned. Sharif has won a popular mandate but Pervez Musharraf – after a longish stint as Pakistan’s chief executive, first as Army chief and then as President – had to flee Pakistan. When he returned a month before the May 11 election, hoping to recapture the imagination of the nation, the former dictator was arrested on court orders. Ultimately, the Pakistani Army may bail Musharraf out. Sharif may not mind that since he has bigger battles to fight than to think of revenge against his former tormentor.

Sharif’s biggest challenge will be to get the Pakistani Army on the same page. Already there are reports that Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani has had a long meeting with Sharif and advised him to go slow on his desire to renew détente with India. The GHQ in Rawalpindi may also be unhappy with Sharif’s post-election announcement that he is open to launching an investigation into the planning and conspiracy of the November 2008 Mumbai attack, widely attributed to LeT. Sharif’s stand on the 2008 attack will bring him in direct confrontation with the LeT, considered one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world now. Like Sharif’s own political party, the LeT’s base is the Punjab province, Pakistan’s largest and politically most powerful region. Sharif therefore may not want to take the LeT head on just yet.

Moreover, the Pakistani Army and especially its spy arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) will also resist any such move since it treats LeT  and other smaller terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohhamed (JeM) as strategic assets against India. Many of LeT’s foot soldiers are often trained, armed and sent into Indian-administered Kashmir by the ISI to keep the Kashmir dispute between the two countries simmering. For over 60 years, maintaining adversarial posture against India has been the very raison d’être of the Pakistani Army and it is not going to change its stance no matter how resounding the democratic verdict is for Nawaz Sharif.

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Perhaps learning a lesson or two from his earlier stints as Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif may want to take it one at a time and not antagonize the Pakistani Army upfront. Writing in The Daily Times, columnist Mohammad Taqi made an interesting point. “From his exile on December 10, 2000 to his eventual return on November 25, 2007 he has had plenty of time to reflect and mellow. The trigger-happy Mr Nawaz Sharif of the 1990s who fired two army chiefs within a year seems to be taking great pains to project patience. A well-earned confidence has replaced his pre-May 11 jitteriness. Personal residence at Raiwind — not the Muslim League Secretariat, Islamabad or even Lahore — chosen as the hub of all post-election activity by Mr Sharif should leave little doubt about where the command and control of his eponymous Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is.”

Patience apart, Nawaz Sharif will have to show urgency on several basic domestic issues. The Pakistani economy is in the doldrums and the country is plagued by perpetual energy shortages. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, much against conventional wisdom, has offered to supply electricity to Pakistan. There are renewed attempts now to boost India-Pakistan bilateral trade too.

However, the biggest challenge for both New Delhi and Islamabad could come from the fast-changing situation in a third country—Afghanistan. As American and ISAF forces prepare for a drawdown from Afghanistan in 2014, there are growing security concerns about a possible resurgence of Taliban and Pakistani Army’s complicity in propping up these groups.

Growing friction between troops of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Taliban insurgents around the Durand line that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan may have prompted President Hamid Karzai to seek direct military help from India during his visit to India last week. Karzai in fact openly told Indian media that he had presented a wish list to the Indians without elaborating on what he sought. But sources in Indian security establishment have revealed Karzai wanted transport helicopters, light artillery and ammunition from New Delhi, apart from stepping up training for ANA troops.

India has so far not revealed its hand about supplying military hardware to Afghanistan, with opinion among strategic thinkers divided. Some advocate immediate supply of weapons to facilitate conversion of the ANA from a light infantry-type force into an army capable of holding its own against a likely onslaught by the Taliban. Others favor continuation of the current Indian policy: aid in reconstruction and in civilian areas combined with training for ANA troops within India. Both camps agree, however, that there should be no Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan since that is a red line for Pakistan. Watching Indian moves very closely will be the Pakistani Army, which regards any Indian presence in Afghanistan as a threat to its need for a “strategic depth” in the event of a military showdown with India.

Despite the Pakistan Army’s reservations, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has for long articulated a need for normal relations with Islamabad, arguing that a stable Pakistan is in India’s long-term interest. In so doing, he has raised the hackles of many Indians. His attempt to convert the Siachen Glacier – described as the world’s highest battlefield – into a “peace park” has run into fierce opposition, mainly from the Indian Army, which otherwise submits to total civilian control over its affairs. The Indian Army leadership has reminded the prime minister and other civilian leaders that the Kargil conflict of 1999 happened primarily because Pakistan wanted to seize Siachen from Indian control.

Terrorism emanating from Pakistan is another thorny issue. Although the Indian prime minister walked the extra mile after the 2008 Mumbai attack, Pakistan has so far failed to bring the mastermind of that attack, LeT founder Mohammed Hafeez Saeed and his associates to book for their role in the brazen assault, limiting Singh’s ability to sell his peace agenda to Indians. The ISI continues to run terror camps along the border in Kashmir and periodically sends well-armed terrorists to disrupt hard-earned peace in the Kashmir Valley. With general elections in India due in less than a year, the current government cannot afford to be seen compromising the country’s interest with Pakistan.

Even for Nawaz Sharif, consolidating his grip on government will depend on three crucial events coming up in the next eight months: the end of President Asif Ali Zardari’s term; the appointment of a new Chief Justice of Pakistan and choosing a successor to General Kayani (if indeed he chooses to retire in November at the end of his extended term).

Sharif’s challenge will be to create the right balance with the army and deliver on the election promises he made to the citizens of Pakistan. Economic recovery and controlling domestic terrorism will be high priorities. As for India, both countries have tried to come to terms with each other over the past six decades, without ever succeeding fully, so a durable peace can wait a little longer.

(Nitin A. Gokhale is Security & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian Boradcaster NDTV)