Full circle

Nawaz Sharif wants to restart the peace process with India. Will he succeed?

Full circle
Sharif wanted to relive the glory days of the historic moment in 1999 The Sharif administration downplayed the strategic significance of the premier’s trip to India to attend his counterpart’s swearing-in ceremony. National Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz called the trip “seismic”, insisting that it was unrealistic to imagine any significant breakthroughs in this new relationship. The two premiers discussed the bilateral need to combat and eliminate terrorism, especially the cross-border variety. Kashmir was discussed fleetingly.

Nawaz Sharif attended the swearing in ceremony, convinced Modi to visit Pakistan in return, and even made arrangements to visit the ailing Vajpayee, now 89, at his residence, a well-received move. Sharif also did not ask to meet leaders of the Hurriyat Conference, or deliberated much on the Kashmir issue.

By all accounts, the ceremonial visit was executed as it should be. Foundations were laid for the dialogue process to flourish in the coming months and years, creating a waterfall effect down the ladder of power. The trip made the alleged goodwill from Pakistan visible and tangible. Pakistan treated the opportunity as a public relations challenge, and met it with beaming smiles, poignant gestures, and generic talks.

Harsh criticism

However, Sharif’s trip to India has come under fire from pundits and the media.

The foremost criticism is that Modi conceded nothing concrete, as the invitation was for SAARC leaders, while simultaneously garnering international support, whereas Sharif just looked weak, like Pakistan alone was keen on jumpstarting the peace process. It was almost as if Sharif wanted to relive the glory days of the historic moment in 1999, when he received Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the Wagah border, just a few weeks before the fateful Kargil incident would throw relations, and the next 15 years of Sharif’s career, into a tailspin. Sharif has faced criticism for talking in general terms, while Modi brought up specifics, such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

“Any interaction with India has to be meticulously planned and result-oriented,” says Sami Abrahim, a veteran anchor and Head of Political and International Affairs on Dunya News. “If we are not prepared for a meeting with India, if the prime minister does not have his stance on key issues carefully labeled and seems unprepared, there will always be a backlash from the media in Pakistan.”

Second, for not broaching the Kashmir issue in any meaningful, substantive way. Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf’s leader Imran Khan went so far as to call the premier as schoolboy, for his mismanagement of the visit.

Syed Talat Hussain, a veteran journalist and anchor at Aaj TV, is wary of such statements. “Look, Imran Khan is not the biggest proponent of the political narrative around Kashmir. When was the last time he said anything thought-provoking or groundbreaking on the issue? This was a well-timed statement in the light of how the visit unfolded, and [Imran’s] political sparring earned him a sizable chunk of points.”

Dr Askari believes this was not the proper forum for such matters. “These kinds of discussions happen in an official visit, when talks are the primary purpose of the moot,” he says. “This was a ceremonious visit.”

Hussain, however, does not buy the idea that Nawaz was unprepared. “He was in the loop about everything, and he was very well aware of all the issues that continue to plague the relationship,” he says. “That being said, [Sharif’s] engagement needed complexity, and a certain element of dexterity, which was sorely missing.”

[quote]Pakistan has no idea what it really wants[/quote]

Perhaps the problem is that despite Sharif’s acute knowledge of the issues, a picture perfect opportunity, and a relaxed dialogue environment, nothing concrete crystallized because Pakistan has no idea what it really wants. “The Indians gave a very articulate discourse in this engagement. They always do, because their position on their relationship with Pakistan has been clear for quite some time,” says Dr Askari. “Pakistan’s continuous problem is that they are not very clear on what they want from India.”

A healthy dose of skepticism

These are unprecedented moves in unprecedented times. No one expected the two leaders to do what they have done so far. But the road forward is fraught with obstacles that may prove to be insurmountable. Nawaz tumultuous relationship with the military continues today, as the 2014 NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has thrown the army into ducky state. Nawaz is also inundated by a deteriorating nation that catapults from one domestic crisis to another with alarming frequency. Modi on the other hand is a Hindu nationalist, a local leader, elected primarily on the basis of improving internal issues that plague a country of nearly 1.3 billion. Then there is the militaries’ commitment to peace, Pakistan’s reception of Modi and his dark past, when nearly 2,000 Muslims died during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujrat in religious riots, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the water-sharing dispute, Sir Creek, Siachen, on and on. And these are just the beefy start to a long, painful list of issues, that have been brewing, unattended at the highest level, for nearly 15 years now.

A (mostly) positive start does not a successful rapport make. A mere three months after Vajpayee and Sharif embraced at Wagha, the Kargil war tore the relationship asunder. Forging a new relationship with a constructive start is laudable, but Dr Askari believes that optimism must be carefully reigned and sprinkled with a healthy dose of skepticism, in a region where political theatrics can dramatically alter the bilateral discourse.

The author is a journalist and a development professional, and holds a master’s degree in strategic communications from Ithaca College, NY, USA. He can be reached at zeeshan[dot]salahuddin[at]gmail.com and tweets @zeesalahuddin