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Does Sharif's victory portend peace in South Asia?

Does Sharif
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So Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League � Nawaz (PML-N), has won the general election recently held in Pakistan and is now the country's...

So Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League � Nawaz (PML-N), has won the general election recently held in Pakistan and is now the country's Prime Minister for the third time. What does it portend for Indo-Pakistani relations? For all intents and purposes, Sharif seems anxious to improve relations with India and, surprise, he has invited India's Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to be present at his oath-taking ceremony. An unusual but heart-warming request, and the height of expression of goodwill. Besides Sharif has been quoted as saying that he will never permit any attack on India from Pakistani soil.

It may be remembered that it was during his second term as Prime Minister that India's own Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee made his famous bus journey to Lahore that resulted in the Lahore Declaration, even as traitorous Pakistani Army Chief Pervez Musharraf was planning the Kargil misadventure. Musharraf subsequently had managed to oust Sharif and there is a certain irony in the fact during Sharif's third term as Prime Minister Musharraf is under house arrest and deservingly so. One can only hope that the present Army chief will not do another Musharraf.

The current C-in-C Gen Kayani is on his last legs and is due to retire sometime in November and Sharif has already made it clear that Kayani will not get an extension. In any event, the Pakistan Army seems to be under trying times. Its leaders have said or done nothing to save Musharraf from ignominy. As matters stand now, Sharif is on record, saying that cultivating good relations with India remains one of his "main priorities". According to one knowledgeable source "there is across the political spectrum (in Pakistan) consensus on the need to improve relations with India".

Back in power, Sharif has three options open to him in dealings with India. One: Continue as before, allowing the ISI to play with Indian security by calculated jehadi attacks not only in Jammu & Kashmir, but across India in consonance with the theory of bleeding India with a thousand cuts. It hasn't succeeded in the past and it will never succeed in the future and, in the end, will be self-defeating. Two: Stop ISI activities totally, but maintain a discreet distance from India, while seeking support from its friends, the United States and China. Three: Make peace with India in its totality.

Help establish a South Asian Confederation that would include India, Pakistan, not to speak of Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Myanmar. And let this be said: if that aim is achieved, the confederation would become the most powerful combine in the world, unbeatable, whichever way. For each of the member countries, it would be a win-win situation. It would outdo SEATO in every way. It would bring together people who share a common multi-religious, multi-ethnic culture. It would liberate them from servility to alien and self-serving countries like the United States and China. It would vastly improve trade and commerce between them and more importantly it would make them glow with pride. But will the Pakistani Army give in?

Presently though the PPP government ran its full course of five years, and in electing the present government literally millions went to the polling booths ignoring threats from fundamentalist elements determined to undermine democracy, as of now, the Army still remains a force to be reckoned with. If Sharif wants to start afresh in his quest for peace, he surely will necessarily have to take the Army along with him.

As one commentator put it, let realism temper our euphoria over Sharif's success. Already skeptics are advising restraint on the grounds that Sharif's record in the past is not all that admirable, and the political class in Pakistan has not always been averse to playing tootsie with extremist. And yet can we take it as an excuse to ignore Sharif altogether? The point is made that if we can wait for ever six long decades to resolve conflict with Pakistan, we can as well wait for some more time to see how Sharif consolidates his power and marginalizes extremists and hardliners.

Will he, for instance, be able to defang the Army and confine it to the barracks and see that never again will it have any power to dictate the formulation of policy? In this regard, can he expect some help from the United States? Sharif is quoted as saying: "We (Pakistan and India) must be good friends and hold each other's hands. Let us make a new beginning". Let us, indeed. What other options do we have? We have to think out of the box, as it were, As has already been stated, one option is to establish a South Asian Confederation. Afghanistan will not then be a bone of contention. Its peace and prosperity will then be the joint responsibility of both India and Pakistan. There will be no scope for clash of interests.

A confederation would help Pakistan in many ways. Pakistan can develop a flourishing transit economy because it provides the shortest land routes from western China to the Arabian Sea through Gwadar Port, while linking India with Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics and providing land route from Iran to India. Importantly, Pakistan can drastically cut its defence expenditure and use surplus funds for infra-structural and other development.

For both Pakistan and India, creation of a South Asian Confederation would be a win-win situation. The PML(N) manifesto states that the party is committed to trade with India and would also make special efforts to resolve the Jammu & Kashmir issue. If Germany and France which had been at loggerheads for over two centuries and in just one century fight two bloody wars, only to find peace and prosperity through membership of the European Union, there is hope also for Pakistan and India.

The fact that thousands, if not millions, chose to exercise their votes in full view of extremists surely indicates that winds of change are blowing in Pakistan. Sharif may have gone overboard in telling Karan Thapar that Pakistanis "have a lot of love and affection" for Indians, but let that go.A What is important to realize is that settling for peace is more paying than in continuing an endless and fruitless war of attrition.

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