By Mehmal Sarfraz
From a Pakistani perspective, an Indian Prime Minister visiting Pakistan after almost 12 years is a positive sign. A strong BJP government led by an extremely conservative leader like Narendra Modi is capable of delivering peace with Pakistan.
Normally, when two countries announce a bilateral meeting, there is a certain amount of certainty that it will take place. But the question “will they, won’t they?” is asked every time there is a scheduled meeting between officials of India and Pakistan. Decades of bitterness, hostility and mistrust between the two nuclear neighbours inevitably warrant such uncertainty till the very last second. Back in August, the first-ever National Security Adviser (NSA)-level talks were called off at the last minute due to preconditions set by India that were unacceptable to Pakistan.
Rapid thaw in relations
When it was initially announced that India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj would be attending the “Heart of Asia” conference in Islamabad, some were sceptical. But in the backdrop of the “brief contact” between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers in Paris and the subsequent meeting of the NSAs and Foreign Secretaries of the two countries, in Bangkok earlier this month, many others were optimistic. Ms. Swaraj’s maiden visit — as a cabinet member of the Modi government — to Pakistan was hailed as a major breakthrough. That she announced the resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue, albeit with a new name (“Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue”), was welcomed all around.
Ms. Swaraj’s visit was certainly an ice-breaker. Her visit was seen as a prelude to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s expected visit to Pakistan in 2016 for the 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. What happened next — on December 25 — took most people by surprise. On Friday morning, Mr. Modi — who was in Kabul to inaugurate the new building of the Afghan Parliament built by the Indian government — tweeted that he would be meeting Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore the same afternoon. His tweet created quite a buzz in South Asia. Mr. Modi sure knows how to create headlines.
That Mr. Sharif is committed to the idea of peace with India goes without saying. In 2013, he said on Election Day that if he became the prime minister of Pakistan again, he would like to pick up the peace process from where he left off in 1999 when his government was overthrown in a military coup. Mr. Sharif went so far as to say: “Whether India invites me or not, I will visit India.” He has been severely criticised by his opponents for being too soft on India, but he has remained firm in the face of resistance in Pakistan on the one hand and the hawkish stance of the Modi government in India on the other. While the Pakistani military establishment’s policy of abetting non-state actors for cross-border terrorism has been disastrous for the South Asian region, the Modi government’s hard-line, anti-Pakistan stance has not done any good to the region either.
December 25 is celebrated as Quaid-e-Azam Day in Pakistan as it is the birthday of the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Mr. Sharif’s birthday falls on the same day. Mr. Modi arrived in Lahore around 5 p.m. (IST) and was flown to Mr. Sharif’s personal residence by helicopter from the airport.
The usual bouquets and brickbats
In Pakistan, most people welcomed Mr. Modi’s visit and are hopeful of better relations between the two neighbours in the coming days. In its editorial (“Modi’s visit”, December 27), the newspaper Dawn wrote: “[Mr. Modi’s] willingness to reverse himself and engage Pakistan should be welcomed by all right-thinking and sensible denizens of the two countries… The 25th of December was an auspicious day to mark the possible beginning of a new era of stability in South Asia.”
Air Vice-Marshal Shahzad Chaudhry (retd.) wrote in his column in The News (“The Modi magic”, December 30): “Modi thinks fast because he talks fast. He is in his element when unrehearsed and uncoached. Such a man can think and say anything, anytime; sometimes something good as well. Only his types decide something on the spur, which in diplomacy is heresy… what he will surely do is to take a road ‘less travelled’, creating opportunities for fresher experiences and opportunities. That is what will change the paradigm of engagement.”
The main opposition parties in Pakistan welcomed the visit. The chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, tweeted: “Welcome to Pakistan @narendramodi. Constant engagement is the only way to resolve all outstanding issues.”
Opposition leader Khurshid Shah of the PPP also supported Mr. Modi’s visit. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan welcomed the thaw in India-Pakistan relations but raised questions about Indian businessman Sajjan Jindal’s role. Jamaat-e-Islami chief Siraj-ul-Haq was one of the isolated voices in opposing Mr. Modi’s visit and even took out a rally against it. In his tweet, Siraj-ul-Haq did say that he is not against dialogue “but how can Pakistan welcome Modi in the background of Indian atrocities in Kashmir, FATA & Balochistan?”
Of course there was the predictable criticism from the usual suspects, with some going on about the Indian Prime Minister’s visit and trying to target Mr. Sharif in the light of Mr. Jindal’s presence in Lahore by saying Mr. Modi’s visit had more to do with Mr. Sharif’s own interests. Mr. Jindal had hosted a tea party in Mr. Sharif’s honour when the latter visited India for Mr. Modi’s swearing-in in May 2014.
It must be mentioned here that Mr. Sharif made a huge statement by not meeting the Kashmiri leadership, and not mentioning the “K” word in his official press conference during his visit. The then Indian Foreign Secretary took a hard-line position against Pakistan in her press conference while Mr. Sharif faced the establishment’s ire on his return. From attempts at destabilising his government to moves to take control of foreign and defence policy by the military establishment, Mr. Sharif has been on the military’s bad side for several reasons — one of the major ones being his continued efforts to normalise relations with India.
Time for some give and take
There is no denying that to move forward, Pakistan must take substantive action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks. India’s position on Mumbai may be rigid but it is understandable. On the other hand, the Indian side should also try to settle issues that can be resolved, such as Sir Creek. It must be mentioned here that while the Pakistani security establishment’s policy vis-à-vis India is still flawed, our politicians have advocated peace with India. In the last three general elections of Pakistan, Kashmir was hardly ever mentioned, and India was mentioned in a friendly way and in the context of regional peace and cooperation. In 1999, the Kargil war was staged to sabotage peace talks with India. In 2008, the Mumbai attacks took place while Pakistan’s then Foreign Minister was in New Delhi. Pakistan’s civilians strive for peaceful relations with India despite the military-security establishment’s world view. On the other hand, Mr. Modi not only fought the general election on an anti-Pakistan tirade but tried to do the same during State elections as well. The resounding defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the latest State elections in Bihar may have led the Modi government to reconsider its stance vis-à-vis Pakistan. It is being said that Mr. Modi is also under pressure from the international community to improve relations with Pakistan in order to stabilise Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military establishment has also tried to take credit for the revival of the India-Pakistan dialogue.
From a Pakistani perspective, an Indian Prime Minister visiting Pakistan after almost 12 years is a positive sign to a certain extent. A strong BJP government led by an extremely conservative leader like Mr. Modi is capable of delivering peace with Pakistan because its nationalist credentials will not come into question while the Congress always had to tread with caution. In Pakistan, a conservative Punjabi leader like Mr. Sharif can also afford to do the same. It would be ironic, though not impossible, if the “villain of Gujarat” becomes a harbinger of peace with Pakistan.
Mehmal Sarfraz is a Lahore-based journalist.
Source: The Hindu