Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s trip to New Delhi sent multiple signals

Narendra Modi’s swearing-in as India’s prime minister coincided with a major diplomatic initiative. By inviting SAARC leaders, especially Pakistan’s prime minister, a new beginning has been made. After intense consultations and taking a strategic risk, Nawaz Sharif decided to attend the ceremony.

Critics in Pakistan termed the ceremony as a continuation of Delhi Durbar the grand assembly of local rajas and maharajas to pay homage to the British crown. Old-fashioned hawks spoke about BJP’s role in the fall of the Babri Masjid, the Gujarat riots and general anti-Muslim rhetoric that its parent organisation RSS is famous for. Sharif ignored all of this and took a gamble to remain true to his quest for a normalised relationship with India. For him, this was a pledge he had made to Pakistani electorate last year. The terrorised Pakistanis, for all the anti-India sentiment that has been drummed up, appreciate the value of peace.

He Means Business

Pakistan’s India policy has been the exclusive preserve of its civil-military bureaucracy. In the past six years, there has been a gradual shift. The previous PPP government opened up trade with India and signed a revised visa regime with the Congress government.

Sharif understands that a civilian ascendancy in Pakistan is not possible without assuming charge of how to deal with India. In fact, his decision to travel to Delhi sent multiple signals. The message to India is that he means business and will continue his efforts.

The signal for his domestic power brokers is that he won’t be haunted by the past, including Kargil. He has also signalled to the business lobbies that greater opportunities for trade are around the corner.

The new administration in India should go for a policy review beyond the conventional thinking of hard-boiled bureaucrats who excel at the art of selling status quo as India’s best option. This is not different from the situation in Pakistan. Retired and serving bureaucrats still shape policy thinking here. What happens in the intelligence complex is little known and more in the speculative domain.

But it can be safely stated that there is frequent convergence between the positions taken by some of the policy wonks and the spooks. Media gives a big platform to the views of this combine. That is why Sharif has been greeted with much scepticism on his return from India.

What does one make of the two different articulations of the meeting that continued for nearly an hour, beyond the scheduled 30 minutes? PM Sharif read out a statement of good intentions, gave a forward-looking vision and emphasised that accusations and counter-accusations may just have to be dropped to make a fresh start. Not surprisingly, the Indian briefing led by the foreign secretary focused on the issue of terrorism, asking Pakistan to do more on cracking down on militant networks. According to reports, the trial of the suspects in the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 were also discussed. This was business as usual and the bonhomie that could be seen from televised images was missing from official-speak.

Understandably, Modi has a domestic constituency, especially the hardliners who have to be assured that he intends to be “tough” on Pakistan as he promised during his campaign and before. It is too early to say which direction Modi’s policy will take. But it is clear that Modi will have to exhibit the kind of leadership that AB Vajpayee displayed.

For India to claim a status of regional power, it will have to wield diplomacy and leadership rather than threat. When it comes to Pakistan, the balance of power is calibrated through nuclear deterrence, thus limiting India’s choices for projecting power.

In the short term, trade remains the most desirable route to normalisation. The Sharif administration has been ready for months and was ostensibly waiting for the new government in India to take charge. The release of Indian fisherman is a signal that Pakistan wants to move forward. The challenge for Sharif is to get into the driver’s seat. The drawdown of NATO from Afghanistan is going to open a window for the civilian government to negotiate a different security policy. At this juncture, a proxy Indo-Pak war in Afghanistan must be avoided. For this to happen, both sides will have to play a role. Contrary to conventional wisdom in India, this is not a one-sided affair.

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