Nawaz Sharif’s overture to India
The Nation
February 8, 1997
Normalizing Pakistan’s relations with India is a gigantic task. Its handling requires that leaders of the two countries should be capable of moving ahead with the actual business of normalization while ignoring all sorts of internal pressures. Nawaz Sharif, in his Zee TV interview last week, claimed he possessed such a will, and that, if elected as premier, normalizing Pakistan’s relations with India would be one of his government’s top priorities. While arguing strongly in favour of friendship with India, Sharif sounded quite reasonable.

The two nations and the region, he said, could not develop and progress unless they end their hostile relationship. The fast approaching Twenty-First Century demands that cooperation, not conflict, should characterize Indo-Pak relations. If elected, Nawaz Sharif plans to invite his Indian counterpart for a one-to-one dialogue on Kashmir and other disputed matters.

Problems of the people of India and Pakistan are similar: the lack of health and education facilities, unemployment resulting from over-population and the horrifying rate of population growth. Yet, due to deep-rooted hostility, both of them continue spending enormously on defense, on producing or purchasing sophisticated weaponry. How they can develop then, Sharif argued rightly. But the question is how can India and Pakistan transform the present hostile climate between them into a friendly one?

Unlike the past, the leaders of India and Pakistan have one big factor in their favour: South Asia is no more a region where big powers are any longer interested in promoting hostility between India and Pakistan in order to promote their global strategic designs. The Americans wish that Pakistan and India should sit together and talk peace. By and large, the West wants this. So do China and Iran. In addition, the United States and other Western states are deeply concerned about the nuclear arms race in South Asia. A friendly climate in South Asia, for being the world’s most populous consumer region, is very much in the economic interest of the West.

If Nawaz Sharif as a leader is compared with Benazir Bhutto, he is better positioned to break the ice in Indo-Pak ties. During her second tenure as premier, Bhutto was scared of even the word ‘India’. That was really a U-turn in her foreign policy outlook. During her first time in power, she did not bother when Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, in a joint press conference with her in Islamabad in December 1989, ruled out the plebiscite option on Kashmir by terming it a “settled issue”. In particular, Bhutto’s U-turn disappointed the Indians among whom her late father and the family as such enjoyed a lot of following. It was during Bhutto’s rule that the foreign secretaries of the two countries, Shaharyar Khan and J. N. Dixit, met in Islamabad in January 1994, and it was there and then the high-level official parleys to normalize relations between India and Pakistan had collapsed.

The fact is that Benazir Bhutto had this fear of annoying Pakistan’s military establishment, in collusion with whom she had allegedly come to power in the October 1993 election after conspiring against Nawaz Sharif. So, she would not meet Indian prime minister Narasimha Rao at the 1995 NAM summit. And, during her nearly three years in power, she never met any Indian leader. Thinking that her softening on India may be interpreted as a national betrayal by her opponents, which can, in turn, annoy the military establishment, she preferred to ignore the country’s normalization process with India.

Had Benazir Bhutto been elected in 1993 elections purely on the basis of the PPP’s actual public strength and with a landslide victory, there was no reason for her not to make a bold, friendly gesture to India. But, when Nawaz Sharif was the prime minister, the IJI, the alliance he was heading, had a two-third majority in the National Assembly. Despite that, Nawaz Sharif faced similar domestic constraints which she later faced. Then, how come, as premier, he met his Indian counterparts not once or twice but seven times? It was at Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral that Sharif had first time met his Indian counterpart, Chandar Shekhar. As J. N. Dixit writes in his book, India and Pakistan: Inheritance of Flawed Relations, it was half an hour, face-to-face meeting between the two leaders with no diplomats around. In the meeting, claims Dixit, Nawaz Sharif offered Chandar Shekhar to sit with him and sort out Kashmir.

This speaks of the political will that Nawaz Sharif also claims he possesses. For Bhutto’s fear as against Sharif’s courage in the context of Indo-Pak ties, there is another explanation. And that pertains to the level of trust and confidence the military establishment reposes in the two persons. Bhutto’s position in this respect is awkward.

She has an inherited political role. Most of her and her family’s political track-record is known to be anti-status quo. And, most importantly, she is married to someone accused of amassing national wealth through corruption and buying palatial estates abroad. For the military establishment, still a key player in Pakistan’s politics, India is always a sensitive chapter, and the causes which make Benazir an untrustworthy person before it in permitting her to play a leading role in the normalization of Indo-Pak relations, are many.

The bottlenecks in Indo-Pak ties are also many. One of them is the Indian government itself or, in more appropriate words, the Indian establishment. Before becoming the External Affairs Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral would privately visit Pakistan and stress the need for the political leaders of the two countries to move ahead in normalizing India-Pakistan relations, ignoring all sorts of domestic pressures.

Now, ever since he became India’s External Affairs Minister, the same Gujral has failed to initiate anything concrete for the purpose. Is it because he represents a weak coalition government in India? Well, weak governments afraid of taking a bold stand on controversial but core matter of foreign policy, is an explanation that appeals. So, even if Pakistan takes a bold initiative for normalizing its relations with India, all will depend on whether the Indian leaders also have the political will to respond positively.

Any normalization or improvement in Indo-Pak ties is only possible when the leaders of these two states are sincerely willing to negotiate all unsettled issues between them. Track-Two Diplomacy or people-to-people contacts have had a meaningless impact, since the ground realities pertaining to India-Pakistan relationship have remained the same. On each side, every day, hundreds of people aspire for visas.

Some wish to visit their relations, others to meet old friends. Still others have this nostalgic idea of seeing the places from where they or their parents migrated at the time of Partition. And many Pakistanis wish to visit India and many Indians wish to visit Pakistan just because the mini-screen seems to have brought them closer to each other. On the Asian satellite TV channels, where India enjoys enormous influence, the Pakistanis watch with interest not only the latest in Indian politics but also their own. So, to start with, if Nawaz Sharif is willing to break the ice in Indo-Pak ties, the first thing he must do is to liberalize the country’s Indian visa policy.

But before doing so, he must get an assurance from the Indians that they should not deviate from discussing Kashmir with Pakistan, while taking the plea, as they took in the past, that let’s first settle minor issues and then move on to the major ones.

To break the deadlock on Kashmir, American South Asian expert Robert Wirsing’s recommendations are quite significant. In his book, India, Pakistan and the Kashmir Dispute, Wirsing recommends that India should stop terming Azad Kashmir as Occupied Kashmir and Pakistan should include the Third Option, of Independent Kashmir, as one of the three options if a plebiscite is ever held. In addition, according to Wirsing, resolution of the Siachen Glacier dispute, on which the two countries were close to concluding an agreement in 1989, will be a head way for Kashmir settlement. Once Kashmir is settled, India-Pakistan disputes over trade will not matter. The fiftieth anniversary is the best occasion for both India and Pakistan to make amends and start a fresh, peaceful relationship.