A New Opportunity for Indo-Pakistan Relations?
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A New Opportunity for Indo-Pakistan Relations?


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.

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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.

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.

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