What political change in Pakistan could mean for relations with India – The Diplomat

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 Sharif is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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 disputed region of Kashmir under Articles 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 slowing relationship, 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

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Shehbaz Sharif’s eventual 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 released after a major Ufa statement signed by then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Modi in 2015 did not mention Kashmir, which caused a backlash from Sharif.

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, Shehbaz, then chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province, visited India, where he met then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and met with Parkash Singh Badal, the chief minister from the Indian state of Punjab. During the meeting, Shehbaz Sharif 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 softer compared to Imran Khan’s government. However, a major policy change is highly unlikely for two reasons. The first reason is Pakistan’s current domestic turmoil. There has been substantial polarization in the Pakistani public after the no-confidence vote, including protests against the current government, and any reconciliation move towards India could lead to a major public backlash.

Secondly, in recent years, competition between the United States and China has intensified, which may impact 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, especially after the signing of the basic exchange and cooperation agreement during the 2+2 dialogue of 2020 and the establishment 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 a common interest in averting the crisis 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 interest of regional stability in South Asia.

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 bilateral dialogue on lasting peace. The memory of 1999 is still fresh in India: Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertook an act of trust and visited his Pakistani counterpart, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in Lahore, reopening the bus line between New Delhi and Lahore – only for the two countries to be locked in a bloody war in Kargil a few months later. 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.

Domestically, the significant rise in anti-Pakistani rhetoric in India bodes ill for the possibility of healthy bilateral relations. Despite this, there is some hope for cautious optimism in India that relations with Pakistan can be improved under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif: optimistic because of the relatively better past performance of PML-N governments in the face of to BJP leadership but cautious because Modi The 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 Pakistan-US relations closely, as the Sharif government has declared its intention to engage “constructively and positively” with Washington. As Sino-US competition intensifies, Pakistan is more likely to side with its staunch ally China, which welcomed the Shehbaz Sharif government with a promise to always make Pakistan “a priority”. Nonetheless, Washington may choose to capitalize on this moment to restore relations with Islamabad, as the Ukraine crisis has exposed some strains in Indo-US relations and renewed the urgency to find more partners in Asia.

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A closer relationship between Pakistan and the United States will undoubtedly cause some unease in New Delhi, which has in the past 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 US MP Ilhan Omar’s visit to the disputed territory of Kashmir only show India’s specific unease with the close ties between Washington and Islamabad, despite the fact that its own relations with the former have grown enormously. during the last decade.

Look forward

Perhaps the most promising sign of improving relations is the ongoing ceasefire along the Line of Control, which has lasted since March 2021. The ceasefire came at a crucial time for the India, which worried about a two-front war amid clashes with China in Galwan. . Pakistan noted that it has never been shy about talking to India despite its vulnerability and loss of diplomatic clout, sharing the same motive of avoiding a two-pronged situation with an 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.

Fortunately, there are many other areas that hold huge 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 are calling for the reopening of trade relations with India, as well as the government’s recent decision to lift a year-long ban on Indian imports of sugar and cotton, paves the way 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 to avoid past mistakes and decouple security issues from trade, which will help both countries’ economies hit by the pandemic. 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 India-Pakistan bilateral relations, which cannot and should not be defined solely from a security perspective.

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 trade diplomacy or cultural, can go very far.

This piece originally appeared in Stimson Center’s South Asian Voices and has been republished with permission.

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