Whatever opposition Nawaz Sharif has faced from the proponents of conflict between India and Pakistan since his reelection as prime minister for the third time in May, he has kept the promise of peace alive. His September 20th meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York is successful in terms of its potential outcome of reducing simmering tensions along the Line of Control in disputed Kashmir.
Sharif had pledged for peace with India after winning a landslide victory in 1997 elections, and likewise committed to open a “new chapter" in this relationship after the May elections. He was overthrown in 1999 for concluding the landmark Lahore Accord with his then Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee. Sharif once again desires to take the Indo-Pak peace process forward from where it was left off 14 years ago—knowing fully well the challenges that lie before him.
The tension over Kashmir was one immediate challenge facing his current administration. For prior to his visit to address the General Assembly and meeting Prime Minister Singh on its sidelines, the exchange of fire across the Line of Control had claimed over a dozen lives of Indian and Pakistani soldiers. Then, a day before his UN speech, the terrorists struck in disputed Kashmir, claiming another dozen of innocent lives.
Yet Sharif did not waver from his declared commitment to peace. While speaking at the General Assembly, he pledged to "make a new beginning" in the relationship between the two nations: “Pakistan and India can prosper together, and the entire region would benefit from our cooperation. We stand ready to re-engage with India in a substantive and purposeful dialogue.” He said so large-heartedly, without taking any notice of his Indian counterpart's usual ‘Pakistan-as-the-epicenter-of-terrorism’ mantra.
No one expected any miracle from the 30th September meeting between the two prime ministers, given the fact that Prime Minister Singh is presently in the lame-duck phase of his administration. Moreover, prior to the meeting, the two leaders had apparently taken maximalist positions over Kashmir while addressing the General Assembly—with Sharif re-invoking UN Security Council resolutions on the dispute and Singh declaring the disputed territory an “inseparable part” of the Indian federation.
Media coverage ahead of this meeting also showed a visible contrast, with relative seriousness in Pakistan’s case—where the tangible benefits of peace with India were critically evaluated in primetime shows. On the contrary, in India’s case, the media remained busy in spinning what was merely an off-the-cuff remark by Sharif, in which he accused Singh of complaining against Pakistan before President Obama like a ‘village woman.’
However, politics played over such a trivial issue in India could not cloud the apparently useful outcome of the Sharif-Singh meeting. For what was needed the most in the recent climate of hostility in Kashmir was the restoration of ceasefire across the Line of Control. Since September 2003, the two countries have successfully managed to keep relative calm in the disputed region, including even during flashpoints such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It is only this year that the ceasefire has been violated twice.
Given that, if the two countries are able to once again renew their commitment to Kashmir ceasefire, then this will certainly constitute a major achievement of the New York meeting between the two leaders. And from what their chief spokesmen stated following the meeting, this exactly appears to be the case.
Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon confirmed that the two prime ministers agreed on “the pre-conditions for forward movement in the relationship,” particularly the need for “improvement of the situation on the Line of Control where there have been repeated ceasefire violations.” Pakistani Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani was also quoted as saying the two leaders had agreed that the ceasefire should be respected "in letter and spirit."
Tension along the Line of Control is currently the key barrier to the resumption of Composite Dialogue between the two countries, which has remained stalled for a year. In July, the Sharif regime had proposed a fresh roadmap for resumption of the third round of this dialogue. However, India did not respond positively to this this proposal.
Now that the two countries have agreed in principle not to let the Kashmir tension conflagrate, we can hope for the resumption of this dialogue in coming months. What we cannot expect is any breakthrough on resolving the lingering disputes between the two countries, especially the Kashmir dispute, until the Indian elections in May 2014. While Prime Minister Sharif is unlikely to waver from his peace commitment, the future of Indo-Pak peace process effectively hinges on the next Indian regime and its leadership.
Peace with India suits Pakistan in every respect. One, its primary threat now originates not from India but from Taliban terrorists at home. Two, the country is economically hard-pressed and does not see any harm in trading with India. Pakistan’s preference for peace in Afghanistan is also increasingly compatible with India’s regional interests. Both countries aspire for trade, investment and energy opportunities in Central Asia, which cannot be harnessed without peace in Afghanistan.
Most important of all, as the debate in Pakistani media on the occasion of the Sharif-Singh New York meeting concluded, the dividend from peace between the two countries is too attractive to ignore: As a consequence, defense budges of India and Pakistan will reduce by 25 per cent; Pakistan will annually save $2 billion and India $9 billion; India and Pakistan will, thus, be able to save in next 20 years a total of $550 billion (Pakistan $89 billion, India $461 billion). This is a gigantic amount to socially uplift the two poverty-ridden nations.
However, the quest for re-charting the destinies of the two countries requires pragmatic and visionary leadership. At least from Pakistan’s side, the vibes for this positivist course in South Asia are pretty serious, what is needed is a matching response from India. Even if this takes a few months more, till the elections there are over, this is still a period worth waiting for—and wishing that the leaderships from the two countries would soon join hands seriously for the sake of mutual peace and regional stability.