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Cautious optimism on Pakistan needed

Cautious optimism on Pakistan needed
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Shreya Upadhyay Pakistan-baiters in New Delhi and Washington are hoping to gain from the recent democratic transition of power in Islamabad. In fact,...

Shreya Upadhyay

Pakistan-baiters in New Delhi and Washington are hoping to gain from the recent democratic transition of power in Islamabad. In fact, India welcomed Nawaz Sharif's victory even before the election results were officially declared; and it was well reciprocated by the new Prime Minister who desired that Manmohan Singh should attend his inauguration.

But will Sharif's third stint as Prime Minister be a harbinger of a new beginning in India-Pakistan relations? Undoubtedly, given the nature of ties which the neighbours have shared in the past, it is advisable not to jump the gun. Euphoria within policy circles and media will only lead to unrealistic expectations.

It was witnessed with tension gripping the Line of Control (LoC) again. Last week the Pakistani Army violated the border ceasefire, killing one Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) in Jammu's Poonch district Saujiyan-Mandi sector; that too a day after Sharif had voiced his intent of maintaining good relations with India and settling all outstanding issues, including Kashmir.

Indo-Pak relations hit a rough patch after the beheading of an Indian soldier by Pakistani troops in Jammu and Kashmir, and the fatal attacks on Indian prisoners Chamel Singh and Sarabjit Singh held in a Pakistani jail. In retaliation, Pakistan prisoner Sanaullah Ranjay was killed by an inmate in Kashmir's high security jail. Islamabad's reaction on 2001 Parliament attacker Afzal Guru hanging struck another blow to ties.

Clearly, the recent LoC incident underscores the Pakistani Army's role to limit Nawaz Sharif's political space and foreign policy approach wherein he is bound to experience a difficult time in managing a suspicious army, as his relations in the past had not been the most cordial.

Pertinently, Sharif was unceremoniously removed from power in 1999 by a military coup staged by General Parvez Musharraf for overriding "core interests" of the Army. The present Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, whose dislike for India is well known, has reportedly advised Sharif to go slow on changes in Pakistan policies towards India and Afghanistan.

Kayani is set to retire on 27th November till which point status quo is likely to be maintained. Even as he steps down, there is a fat chance that his successor will have any different views vis-�-vis India. Indeed, Sharif's inner party circles as well as foreign policy-making institutions have rendered the same advice. Moreover, expecting Nawaz Sharif to work in a way to assuage India's concerns would be over-ambitious. In his earlier stint as Prime Minister, he did little to alter Pakistan's policy towards India. Vajpayee's Lahore bus yatra diplomacy during his leadership culminated in the Kargil misadventure.

Thus, expectations regarding the new administration bringing the 26/11 Pakistani perpetrators to justice or extraditing Hafiz Saeed to India seem premature and ill-timed. The same logic applies to the feeling that our neighbour would curtail terrorist activities across the border. It, however, needs to be acknowledged that Sharif has announced that he will not allow anti-India "speeches to be made by anybody, including Hafeez Saab". But he does not have any control over the militant groups operating in Kashmir. Therefore, even if his intentions are sincere, how much will he be able to act on them is a big question.

The new administration has a political advantage as in the last few years the Army's domestic image has gone down due to its ineffectiveness to control domestic terrorism and military operations in the FATA region. Two days after Sharif assumed office there was a drone attack killing seven militants in North-West Pakistan. Sharif has publicly criticised drone strikes, thereby echoing long-held Pakistani complaints that the US campaign violates national sovereignty. Additionally, some militant groups used by the security establishment to spread terrorism in India and maneuver the situation in Afghanistan have now rebelled against the Pakistani State.

It is obvious that domestic terrorism has been one of the major causes of a steep decline in the economy, whereby the Army and intelligence services have been accused of either complicity with Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists or of incompetence in combating extremists or both. This belief has been strengthened in the wake of Osama Bin Laden's killing by US Special Forces in May 2011.

Islamabad's new administration is bound to concentrate on dealing with the country's economy which is in shambles. Hopefully, Sharif enjoys the support of the business community in Pakistan. He must capitalise on this atmosphere of goodwill and make use of these expressions of support to create a foreign policy that is in Pakistan's best interests.

Consequently, he needs to take steps to make operational the decision taken by the previous Government to grant MFN status to India. On its part, New Delhi has already lifted the ban on investments from Pakistan and its businessmen have visited India to explore business opportunities. Add to this, Pakistan's investors lobbying for greater economic ties are particularly enthusiastic about Sharif's return to power.

Appropriately, the Karachi Stock Exchange crossed the 20,000 mark for the first time after his win. 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. Also, Pakistan's electricity woes can be addressed by implementing the earlier Indian offer of selling 500 MW of electricity to Islamabad. The business-to-business inter-action between the two countries sounds promising and would work in favour of Pakistan's economic revival.

It is important that India responds positively to Sharif's gestures. Yet, New Delhi needs to be clear with Islamabad about its own "core interests". Better relations are possible only when the Pakistani Establishment, including the military and intelligence agencies, vow to wage a war against terrorism. Any optimism on the part of India without this is bound to be foolhardy.

- INFA

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