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Old Hand, New Start
Seldom has an embattled Pakistani prime minister’s image received such a fillip after a visit to New Delhi. Times have been tough for Nawaz Sharif—the opposition is often out on the streets, protesting a full year of ‘misgovernance and corruption’. And on the nation’s main-travelled roads, the disaffected block traffic as the summer reaches its peak and the old bogey of energy shortage rears its disruptive head.
Even Sharif’s attempts at realpolitik—his overtures towards the Taliban that led to a lull in hostilities—failed miserably. And, crucially, relations are tense with GHQ in Rawalpindi. The army is uncomfortable with Gen. Musharraf’s trial under Sharif’s watch; it also feels Sharif supported the Geo group when it held the army and the ISI responsible for the attack on its lead anchor, Hamid Mir.
But on May 26, as Sharif arrived in New Delhi and stepped into the spotlight, he almost overshadowed the lavish oath-taking ceremony of Narendra Modi. Television cameras measured every move of his. Those images were beamed across the world—Modi and Sharif walking towards each other, hands outstretched; the talks at Hyderabad House the next day; Sharif at Jama Masjid.
He even took out time to be photographed with actress Shabana Azmi, while Shatrughan Sinha, a friend of his mentor Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, called on him at his hotel. Before flying back, Sharif’s carefully worded statement stressed on the goodwill generated by his visit.
When Sharif received the invitation from Modi to attend the swearing-in, most Pakistanis unequivocally wanted him to go. The media, civil society and opposition parties warmed to the idea soon. Even GHQ, with its hands full of problems of their own making, did not demur and gave its green signal. Wags on social media warmed to the idea, reminding Sharif to get his polio drops before entering a polio-free country.
When Modi’s invite first arrived, Pakistani bureaucrats didn’t exactly know how to react. Sharif consulted everyone, even the opposition, who all felt that it was a SAARC invite and Pakistan could not afford to turn it down. Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, the Punjab chief minister, had a late night meeting with army chief Gen Raheel Sharif in Lahore. On the morning of May 24, the announcement of acceptance came from the PMO.
The isolated, angry voices of dissonance came, predictably, from the non-democratic, hardline fringe, like the Punjabi jihadis; especially strident was JUD chief Hafiz Saeed.
Then there were others, like defence analyst Ejaz Haider, who told Outlook that Sharif could have sent the speaker of the National Assembly instead. “That way, he would have responded to the gesture graciously while signalling that Pakistan retains its own position within SAARC,” he said. Haider sees a “deeper irony” in Sharif’s visit, saying that while the PML(N) government backed off from an agreement on bilateral trade, which would have been a substantive improvement in ties, “it walked right up to a table, which looks great, but would only serve Mr Modi’s interests”.
Interestingly, Modi’s invite brought together two rival Pakistani women politicians—PML(N)’s Maryam Nawaz Sharif and PPP’s Sherry Rehman both encouraged Sharif to accept the invitation on social media.
“Good news, moving on from stalemate...Nawaz Sharif, Narendra Modi to hold bilateral meeting on May 27,” tweeted Rehman. Sharif’s daughter Maryam acknowledged Rehman’s tweets and passed them on to Sharif. Responded Maryam, “I personally think cordial relations with new Indian govt should be cultivated. Will help remove psychological barriers, fear & misgivings.”
As Sharif’s India visit proceeded amidst warm civility, Modi shared his thoughts on Twitter about an emotional Sharif and his mother watching Modi being greeted with sweets by his mother after his election victory. Hours later, after Sharif’s return to Islamabad, Maryam, in a message on a social networking website, thanked Modi for sending a shawl as a gift for her grandmother, along with its photograph. “Thank u v much PM @narendramodi for the beautiful shawl for my grandmother. My father personally delivered it to her,” she tweeted.
Yet, no cross-border bonhomie can wish away the sterner stuff that India-Pakistan ties are made of. On his return, Sharif was criticised for not raising the ‘K’ issue and not meeting the Hurriyat leadership. His advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, pleaded that, after all, it was Modi’s first day in office and yet the two PMs met for nearly 50 minutes. The meeting, Aziz said, was the stuff of polite but firm diplomacy, in which there was sincerity and warmth, along with the determination to move forward.
“Prime Minister Sharif discussed the Kashmir issue during his meeting with Modi.... When there are discussions on Kashmir, we take the Hurriyat’s views. This time there was nothing substantive on Kashmir on the agenda.... When the PM and I point out that all issues of mutual concern were raised, then Kashmir is part of that concern,” he said.
On the whole, the Pakistani media struck an optimistic note. The News said, “Nawaz Sharif’s India trip was a seismic event. This was a battle for public relations and setting the ground for an improvement in relations.... In this, Nawaz excelled, particularly with the poignant touch of calling on former Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee.” A more pragmatically minded Dawn asked, “With Mr Sharif’s relationship with the army clearly going through a tense phase, is there really the capacity or the will here on both the civilian and military (establishments) to work together on crafting a new beginning with India?”
As if the mood here communicated itself across the border, the normally jingoistic Indian electronic media also saw Sharif’s visit as a new beginning and, unlike in the past, did not try to skewer Pakistan over some issue or the other.
However, the hopeful air was marred a few days later by the debate in India over a proposal to repeal Article 370 that accords Jammu and Kashmir special status. As experts speculated what this meant for Kashmiris, officials said they were monitoring the situation. And so resumes the ebb and flow of India-Pakistan relations.