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The new Indian government and parleys with Pakistan

As it became increasingly apparent that the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was expected to form the new government, it simultaneously gave rise to fears and hopes in Pakistan. While fears arose from a nationalist hardliner image attached to the BJP, the fact that the incoming government would not be constrained by the dictates of a coalition politics, gave rise to hope that the leadership of the two countries would be able to take relations forward. An opportunity for realisation of such hopes presented itself sooner that anyone expected. That Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accepted Narendra Modi’s invitation to his swearing-in ceremony and arrived in India in spite of numerous domestic constraints underscores his own positive intentions with regard to relations between the two countries.

The civilian government has been having differences with the military on a number of accounts. First, the onus of finding a face saving way of extricating Gen Musharraf from the clutches of law, lies on the government and the government has been dragging its feet over removing Musharraf’s name from the exit control list, putting the responsibility on the Supreme Court. Second, the ISI was implicated in the attack on well known journalist Hamid Mir, anchor of Geo TV, and it was believed that the civilian government was backing the channel against the ISI and subsequent events led to Geo TV being forced to go off the air. Third, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) continues to create mayhem within the country. While the army would like to take on the TTP militarily, the Sharif government has been putting emphasis on talks with them. Though reservations remain over the key demands of the TTP, the ceasefire by the TTP has not been extended and the army has recently conducted operations against militants in North Waziristan as a retaliatory measure. This has given rise to unease that the militants could up the ante by resorting to suicide attacks in various parts of the country.

In the backdrop of such problems, the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif met Army Chief Raheel Sharif in Lahore and discussed the possibility of Nawaz Sharif’s visit to India, in a bid to build consensus on the issue. In an attempt to create a positive atmosphere before his visit, Sharif announced the release of 151 Indian fishermen and 57 fishing boats in Pakistan’s custody. Further, in a departure from past tradition wherein meetings were fixed between visiting dignitaries from Pakistan and leaders of the Hurriyat Conference, nothing was scheduled by the Pakistan High Commission this time.

The talks between the two leaders were supposed to be of short duration but lasted longer than scheduled and served the purpose of breaking the ice, given the suspension of talks with Pakistan since early 2013 in the aftermath two Indian soldiers being killed by Pakistani troops along the LoC. As it is, the two sides had only been able to resume talks in 2011 after the disruption due to the Mumbai attacks. As expected terrorism and trade were two important issues talked about. The Indian side expressed their concerns regarding terrorism emanating from Pakistan, and impressed upon the Pakistani side the importance of abiding by its earlier commitment of not allowing its territory to be used as a base of terrorism. It underscored the importance of taking steps for the speedy trial of those suspected to be involved in the Mumbai blasts. It was agreed that the two countries could move forward on trade as per the roadmap envisaged in September 2012, and as a first step the Wagah-Attari border is to be opened up for full trade. The recent attack on the Indian consulate in Herat also came up for discussion. It was also decided that the foreign secretaries of the two countries would meet to discuss the way forward. Nawaz Sharif expressed hopes that things could be picked up from where they were during his engagement with Prime Minister Vajpayee in 1999 and expressed his willingness to discuss all issues.

Despite the good intentions of the two Prime Ministers’ it was perhaps not possible to agree on anything more substantial at this juncture. The most obvious question is whether the resumption of dialogue between the two countries can take place within the framework of what is called the composite dialogue, comprising eight basic issues. There has been considerable debate on both sides whether this framework would be workable in the future. Therefore, the discussion has centred on the need to evolve a new architecture which will take into account the most critical concerns of the two countries and enable speedy progress towards normalisation. In this context the question of the efficacy of back channel diplomacy is raised from time to time. There are different opinions about whether the back-channel route has delivered any worthwhile results in the past, but the volatility of relations between the two countries does point to the importance of back channel diplomacy away from the media speculation.

There are, however, certain obstacles which will impede the relationship to move forward especially on how much Nawaz Sharif is able to deliver on terrorism. He still has to battle with the religious right constituency within the country. Jamaat-ud-Dawa Chief Hafeez Saeed was overtly critical of Sharif’s decision to go to India and questioned his commitment to the Kashmir cause. Sharif’s own manoeuvrability with regard to such elements is in question given the fact that Pakistan’s Punjab province government has over the last few years been allocating considerable funds in their annual budget for the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Before Sharif’s visit, Jamaat-e-Islami secretary general Liaqat Baloch while speaking to hardliners in Lahore, warned against any hastiness and said: “These Hindus are not anyone’s friends.”

Even while the army in recent years has articulated that the number one security threat to Pakistan lies within, they have not stopped looking at India as an enemy state. Speaking during a ceremony to mark Martyrs Day at Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi recently, the Army Chief Raheel Sharif referred to Kashmir as the jugular vein of Pakistan and called the issue an international dispute. Pakistan continues to target Indian interests in Afghanistan as is evident by the most recent attack on the Indian consulate in Herat, which President Karzai attributed to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. It is worried that the withdrawal of US troops may give India space to expand its influence in Afghanistan which remains inimical to Pakistan’s interests. There remain in Pakistan many players making normalisation of ties between the two countries difficult. At the same time the complexities in the domestic security situation give little room for manoeuvre. Maulana Fazlullah, the head of the TTP in a video released recently asked the Pakistani government and the military to surrender to “Allah’s writ” and stated that fighting would continue till Islamic law was enforced throughout the country. This reiteration comes at a time when there is infighting in the Mehsud tribe which is complicating efforts by the Pakistani government to continue with peace talks. While some commanders favour talks, others do not, and divisions have been created within the ranks of the TTP over leadership issues.

While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was careful not to publicly bring up the Kashmir issue in his statement to the media after the talks, it does not necessarily portend any change in policy. Abdul Basit Khan, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India recently suggested doing away with pre-conditions for talks, and holding discussions on Kashmir as per the composite dialogue. While atmospherics have taken the talks forward the strategic intentions of the Pakistani establishment remain suspect. It remains to be seen whether Nawaz Sharif will be able to cash in on the conciliatory gesture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and assert his own priority of improving relations with India vis-a-vis the hostile elements within his country.
By Sumita Kumar: 

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
http://idsa.in/idsacomments/ThenewIndiangovernmentandparleyswithPakistan_skumar_280514