What political change in Pakistan could mean for its relations with India – South Asian Voices
On April 11, Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in as Pakistan’s 23rd prime minister after Imran Khan was ousted by a vote of no confidence. Among the first international leaders to congratulate Prime Minister Sharif is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Prime Minister Sharif warmly returned the favor, expressing a desire for “meaningful engagement” and a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute. The two leaders are said to have also exchanged letters through diplomatic channels.
Although this is an established diplomatic practice, it comes after a particularly turbulent phase in bilateral relations which have been on a downward spiral since August 5, 2019, when New Delhi revoked the special status granted to the region. disputed Kashmir under Sections 370 and 35A. of the constitution of India. However, the continuation of the joint announcement of the ceasefire on February 25, 2021 and the explicit mention of improving relations with India, while keeping Kashmir at the heart of the bilateral relationship, in the very first Pakistan’s national security policy open the possibility of restoring diplomatic relations. Although it remains to be seen whether the two governments possess the political will to reset the slowdown in relations, the change of government in Pakistan provides an ideal environment to capitalize on the positive momentum to rejuvenate relations, despite the challenges on both sides. .
A View from Pakistan: The PML-N Approach
Shehbaz Sharif’s possible Indian policy should not be seen in isolation but in the context of the three terms in office of his older brother and member of the same political party, Nawaz Sharif. Many accounts have pointed to Nawaz Sharif’s “gentle approach” to India, including his meeting with former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for peace talks in 1999 as well as sharing a good relationship with Modi. Marking what was seen as a break with Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, Nawaz Sharif did not meet the Hurriyat leadership in 2014 during his final term. More so, the joint statement issued after a major statement from Ufa signed by then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Modi in 2015 did not mention Kashmir, which caused a backlash from Sharif.
… It is important to note that the relationship with India is not only defined by the civilian rulers of the country, but also by the military rulers. Perhaps the tone towards India may be softer compared to Imran Khan’s government, however, a major change in policy is highly unlikely…
Shehbaz Sharif has also often been portrayed as less hawkish towards India unlike his predecessor. A businessman himself, he fostered commercial relations between the two countries. In 2013 Prime Minister Shehbaz visited India and met then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and had a meeting with Minister of State Prakash Singh Badal. During the meeting, he called for a peaceful dialogue between the two counties.
Whether or not Shehbaz Sharif’s approach to India is an extension of his brother’s policy is a question for the future. However, it is important to note that the relationship with India is not only defined by the civil rulers of the country, but also by the military rulers. Perhaps the tone towards India is perhaps softer compared to Imran Khan’s government, however, a major change in policy is highly unlikely for two reasons. The first reason is Pakistan’s current domestic turmoil. There has been substantial polarization in the Pakistani public following the vote of no confidence, including protests against the current government and any move towards India in reconciliation efforts could lead to a major public backlash. Second, in recent years, competition between the United States and China has intensified, which has the potential to inform India-Pakistan relations. Relations between Pakistan and China are marked by a history of cordial relations and strong strategic partnership, while bilateral relations between India and the United States have developed considerably in recent years. This is especially the case after the signing of the basic exchange and cooperation agreement during the 2020 2+2 dialogue and the establishment of a partnership within the framework of the quadrilateral dialogue on security.
On several occasions, the United States and China have each called on India and Pakistan to work bilaterally and appear to have common interests in preventing crises in South Asia. However, the US partnership with India as a counterbalance to China undermines the potential role of the US and China as mediators in Pakistan-India relations. For now, the prospects of the two neighbors working bilaterally without third-party mediation also seem unlikely given the growing power asymmetry between Pakistan and India and failed attempts at dialogue in the recent past. However, if leaders on both sides can look beyond their strategic relationships with extra-regional powers, they may be able to resolve their bilateral issues in the interests of South Asian regional stability.
A view from India: is another “act of trust” possible?
Unlike India’s relatively stable political framework and cohesive political parties, Pakistan’s turbulent political history, frequent leadership changes and active military involvement in determining the country’s external relations have often aggravated the frequent fluctuations in the bilateral dialogue on a lasting peace. The memory of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertaking an act of trust and visiting his Pakistani counterpart, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in Lahore and reopening the bus route between New Delhi and Lahore in 1999 only for the two countries to be locked in a bloody war in Kargil a few months later, still remains fresh in India. Since the ousting of Nawaz Sharif in a military coup the same year, no Indian leader has taken unilateral action to dispel the mutual mistrust, fear and suspicion that dominates bilateral relations.
Since the ousting of Nawaz Sharif in a military coup [in 1999]no Indian leader has taken unilateral action to dispel the mutual mistrust, fear and suspicion that dominate bilateral relations.
Domestically, the significant rise in anti-Pakistani rhetoric in India bodes well for the future possibility of healthy bilateral relations. Despite this, there is some hope for cautious optimism in India that relations with Pakistan can improve under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Optimistic due to relatively better past performance of PML-N governments with BJP leadership, but cautious as Modi’s BJP is very different from Vajpayee’s BJP, which has displayed the political will to radically transform relations with Pakistan without the rhetoric or actions of the current government.
New Delhi will be watching developments in US-Pakistan relations closely, as the Sharif government has declared its intention to engage “constructively and positively” with Washington. As US-China competition intensifies, Pakistan is more likely to side with its staunch ally China, which hailed the election of Shehbaz Sharif with a promise to always make Pakistan ‘a priority’ . Nonetheless, Washington may choose to use this moment to restore relations with Islamabad, as the Ukraine crisis has exposed some strains in US-India relations and renewed the urgency to find more partners in Asia. A closer relationship between the United States and Pakistan will no doubt cause some unease in New Delhi, which has deterred India from pursuing relations with Washington. India has always rejected third-party mediation in the Kashmir issue – which it sees as an exclusively bilateral issue – and former US President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate has not gone down well. hosted in New Delhi. However, India’s apparent comfort with the UAE’s mediating role and the strong reaction to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s visit to the disputed territory of Kashmir only show India’s specific unease with close ties between Washington and Islamabad, despite its own relationship with the former which has developed enormously. during the last decade.
Perhaps the most promising sign of improving relations is the ongoing ceasefire on the Line of Control, which has lasted since March 2021. The ceasefire came at a crucial time for India , who worried about a two-pronged war amid clashes with China in Galwan. . Pakistan noted that it had never hesitated to enter into talks with India despite its vulnerability and loss of diplomatic clout, sharing the same reason to avoid a two-pronged situation with unstable Afghanistan in the west while actively curbing internal unrest. However, the unsuccessful record of past ceasefire agreements remains an unfortunate reminder that there is no simple solution to the protracted and historically rooted security problems plaguing bilateral relations.
This is an opportunity for the two governments not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to decouple security issues from trade, which will help the struggling economies of both countries.
Fortunately, there are many other areas that hold immense opportunities for cooperation, including trade. A World Bank study estimated that trade between India and Pakistan could reach $37 billion, up from just $2 billion in 2018. Influential voices in Pakistan advocating reopening of trade relations with India, as well as the government’s recent decision to lift a two-year ban on Indian sugar and cotton imports, sets the stage for the new government to refocus attention on this pressing issue. After sustained calls from politicians at the national level, the Indian government has also indicated its willingness to reopen trade relations with its neighbor, but has placed the responsibility on Pakistan.
This is an opportunity for the two governments not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to decouple security issues from trade, which will help the struggling economies of both countries. Despite tensions, steady progress in the construction of the Kartarpur Corridor – a four kilometer long visa-free corridor allowing Indian pilgrims to enter Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara, Narowal District, Pakistan – throughout 2019 and its reopening in 2021, after the COVID-19 pandemic, indicates the diversity of the Indo-Pakistani bilateral relationship, which cannot and should not be defined solely through the prism of security. Although a radical change in bilateral relations is unlikely and difficult, given the unstable state of the current Pakistani government and the strength of Hindu nationalism in India, progressive measures, whether through commercial diplomacy or cultural, can go very far.
Image 1: Giridhar Appaji Nag via Flickr
Image 2: MEA photography via Flickr