A New Beginning

29 May, 2013    ·   3952

Shujaat Bukhari on the potential for progress in bilateral ties in the aftermath of the elections in Pakistan

Shujaat Bukhari
Shujaat Bukhari
Editor in Chief, Rising Kashmir

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy Satinder K Lamba who met the Pakistan Muslim League (N) chief Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif at his Lahore residence, New Delhi has established the first official contact with him ahead of his scheduled take over as the new Prime Minister on June 6. This is indeed a step towards restoring the “stalled” dialogue process between India and Pakistan.

Confirming that Ambassador Lamba met Sharif, a statement from Prime Minister’s Office revealed the intentions behind this first meeting as, "They took the opportunity to discuss ways to take the dialogue process forward to address all issues of concern to the two countries and to advance peace, friendship and cooperation between the two South Asian neighbours."

Dr Singh had talked in detail with Sharif on May 12, when his party was heading towards a comfortable majority in the National Assembly for which elections were held on May 11. Though Sharif had desired that Dr Singh would attend his oath ceremony, the possibility of such a development has already been ruled out. But sending Lamba to Pakistan to extend greeting to Sharif and set out for a renewed dialogue is surely a significant development which could heal the bruised process that has seen many set backs in the past few years. Establishing this contact with Sharif also signals the element of trust with which Manmohan Singh government is reposing in the person who will be probably leading the first “stable” civilian government in Pakistan in the last two decades.

The composite dialogue process has surely resumed after getting a severe beating with the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008, and eight areas were identified by both sides to be part of it. However, except on commerce front, nothing has substantially moved on any other issue including security and Jammu and Kashmir. While four rounds have been held on commerce, Pakistan’s previous government led by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) are about to grant the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India. But continuous instability in the country and opposition from right wing extremists, has forced it to put the decision on the hold. Similarly not much improvement could be seen on other Confidence Building Measures (CBM’s), though they signed the free visa regime pact as well.

With Nawaz Sharif extending a hand of co-operation and friendship by picking up the threads from 1999 Lahore Declaration between him and then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, he faces more challenges in moving forward on relations with India. However, New Delhi has taken a positive step by officially engaging with him much before he takes over as the new Prime Minister. Trade and economic co-operation may be an easier area where from Nawaz Sharif can begin and for that India is also supportive and an MFN status could further boost the ties on that front. Improving people to people contact may be another area in which he may not face much resistance. But one thing is clear that he will face pressure on the question of Kashmir and it may be difficult for him to completely put it on back burner. Pakistan Army Chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, also cautioned him, though subtly on moving forward in improving ties with India, and Army being an important factor in the decision making cannot be ignored, though Nawaz Sharif is on a strong wicket this time as the enthusiasm among the people vis a vis democracy will hold on for sometime. 

But on the issue of prosecuting those involved in Mumbai attacks will remain a serious concern for India while dealing Nawaz. He has made it clear that he would go ahead with the prosecutions and won’t allow Pakistani soil to be used against any other country, but the pressure on him to punish the “parent organisations” of the perpetrators will continue to remain mounted from New Delhi. Moreover, he will not be in any position to compromise on the question of Afghanistan with India. India is seen as the biggest irritant for Pakistan in Afghanistan and with the withdrawal in 2014, the positioning will become clear. Though he has talked about transit trade route to Afghanistan. The co-operation between two Punjabs may push forward the process in a right direction, but it is again conditioned with the overall progress of the dialogue process.

Former interlocutor on Jammu and Kashmir and Director General of Delhi Policy Group, Dr. Radha Kumar, has rightly analysed the situation that is emerging after the historic elections in Pakistan. “Mr. Sharif offers an important opportunity for India to get a peace process going with Pakistan again. In the dispiriting environment that prevailed over the past five years, this is an opportunity not to be missed. The Indian Government will, however, need to ensure at every stage that progress on one issue is neither overshadowed by lack of progress on another issue nor made hostage to it,” she wrote in a policy brief on Pakistan published by the DPG.

One thing is clear that there is majority support to talks between India and Pakistan, and issues like trade and resolution of Jammu and Kashmir issue.  According to The Pew Global Attitudes poll, conducted in the later part of 2012, majorities in both countries support India- Pakistan talks, increased trade, improved relations and a Jammu and Kashmir resolution. Though 72 percent of Pakistanis see India unfavourably, and 57 percent of Pakistanis see India as a major threat, equal numbers support peace initiatives. A more recent poll, released by the Australian National University in 2013, shows that though 78 percent of Indians considered Pakistan a major threat, 72 percent felt that trade and economic cooperation would bring peace, and 67 percent felt that without an agreement on Kashmir, peace would not be possible. (Source Delhi Policy Group policy paper). Support to peace process was never a problem in both countries but at the level of governments, this could not be channelized in a proper way.

Now that the hopes have been rekindled, it is expected that both the countries show respect to this urge among their people. One can expect a major breakthrough in this renewed process when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives in Srinagar on June 25. This could be the most appropriate place to further cement the process. A B Vajpayee in the thick of animosity in the backdrop of parliament attack of 2001 had chosen Srinagar to extend the fresh hand of friendship to Pakistan during his public meeting on April 18, 2003. Dr Singh could also use the occasion to open a new chapter in the relations, which could lead to something substantial and help restoring peace and reconciliation in the region.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir