Can Nawaz Sharif mend Indo-Pak relations?
There need not be any special sense of jubilation over Nawaz Sharif becoming Pakistan's Prime Minister. But there can be jubilation over the fact that...
There were several red faces in the BJP following Nawaz Sharif laudatory comments on the BJP-led government of Atal Behari Vajpayee and how the governments of the two nations worked closely from the late 1990. The canny Pak electorate decided to put caution first and opted for experience. A Nawaz Sharif was nobody's angel and his leanings towards the business community were well known. But he still believed in democracy and his abrupt ouster in a military coup by General Musharraff shocked Pakistan. Sharif sought asylum in Saudi Arabia, maintained his reputation.
So while Musharaff was put under house arrest and later arrested, Sharif returned home in peace, fought the elections in the right spirit and was returned to power with a majority. A Since then he has made all the right noises, particularly with reference to future relations with India. Sharif knows that terrorism and Indo-Pak relations are the most important issues for his new government.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML) party won power without the support of other political groups and government formation should not be difficult. What should disturb the PML is the fact that it won total support of only one ethnic group, the Punjabis. In the recent election each province in Pakistan decided to go its own way by voting for different parties. And the voting figures were abysmally low in Balochistan, which had been completely alienated from the central government all these years.
The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was routed in the poll. The electorate had had enough of its incompetence and corrupt practices. But, it was the only party which had representation from all the Pak provinces in the previous Assembly. A Can Sharif hold together a nation where the spirit of federalism has been thrown to the winds, is a crucial question. Ultimately, any party, irrespective of its political leanings, aims at being more representative of the varied national feelings and interests.
Balochistan stood out like sore thumb because it felt left out. Of course, the fault was partly its own and this had continued in the recent election too. The new Prime Minister also faced the stern test of winning the confidence and support of the army. A In the past, General Zia had excellent credentials on this issue, but then he fell out so badly with General Musharaff that his ouster through a coup came as no surprise. However, today Pakistan appears more amenable to democracy and the Pak army, sensing this mood, may keep its distance from national politics.
In a recent media interview, Nawaz Sharif pointed out that the Army was a department of the Central government and its Chief of Staff worked under the federal government. Questioned on the future plans of Army Chief General Kayani after his retirement in next November, Nawaz Sharif observed that Gen Kayani would not be interested in any extension of his term and his successor would be chosen as per the rules of the book.
Whether the PM had guessed the mood of the Army in a correct manner remains to be seen. While India was the major concern for any Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif would have to mend fences with the US and adopt a new workable policy which would consider prickly issues like the Drone attacks which the US would not discontinue.
However, public anger against the US on the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians in the Drone attacks could not be disregarded. In its second term, the US government, which had promised to pull out its troops by the end of 2014, would not be so trigger-happy on its Drone attacks and had hinted it would consider negotiating with the moderate elements within the Taliban.
If such a move is launched, the US will work closely with the Pak government and Nawaz Sharif has not made it clear where he stands with the Taliban. But he was far more experienced in the art of diplomacy and negotiations and might well strike a chord with the Taliban moderates. He also knows no real progress could be achieved unless Drone attacks were stopped.
The US is certain to increase its military and economic aid to Islamabad and Sharif is in a better position to bargain with Washington. Sharif, who liked to present himself as a dove, was keen to mend ties with India. He would go back to the Vajpayee days when he felt real peace progress was achieved. A But India today is different from the India of the 1990. Cross- border terrorism, major bomb attacks and the never-ending squabble over Kashmir have soured relations with Pakistan. The BJP and the NDA, which were praised by Nawaz Sharif, are now major hawks preferring a tough line over our neighbour.
How much they would succumb to such sweet talk from Sharif remains to be seen.Over the years, Pakistan had leaned more towards China. Today, after the LTTE saga and the cry for a separate Tamil Eelam State, Sri Lanka could be disillusioned with India and move closer to Pakistan. A While reconciling himself to these changes, Sharif made it clear he disapproved of Pak territory being used to launch terrorist attacks on India. But, he remained silent on how his government would deal with such extreme groups which launched these deadly attacks and claimed responsibility for them.
While a lunatic fringe in Pakistan might support such actions, Sharif must address himself to the majority of the Pakistani people and convince them that India is not their enemy and that nations had to learn to live together. A Nawaz Sharif also faces another peculiar problem. With India set to go to the polls in 2014 and no one being certain about its outcome, he would not know what kind of government India would have next and how it would reciprocate peace offers from Pakistan. But the peace offers must not cease and that is one major responsibility for Nawaz Sharif.