LAHORE: Nawaz Sharif, poised to become prime minister for a third time after a decisive victory in the elections, said on Monday that the mistrust which had long dogged relations with India needed to be addressed.
He also pledged to strengthen relations with the United States, but called its drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal region a challenge to national sovereignty.
Mr Sharif said he had a “long chat” with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday and both of them extended invitation to each other to visit, a diplomatic nicety in some parts of the world, but a heavily symbolic step for South Asia’s arch-enemies.
Asked by an Indian journalist if he would invite Mr Singh for his swearing-in as prime minister, he said he would be very happy to extend that invitation.
“There are fears on your side; there are fears on our side. We have to seriously address this,” Mr Sharif said while speaking to the foreign media at his palatial estate outside Lahore.
A supporter of free market policy, he wants to see trade between the two countries unshackled, and he has a history of making conciliatory gestures towards New Delhi.
In 1999, when he was prime minister, Mr Sharif stood at the frontier post waiting to welcome his counterpart, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to arrive on the inaugural run of a bus service between New Delhi and Lahore.
It was a moment of high hope for two countries that had gone to war three times in the preceding decades.
But by May of that year, the two sides were sucked into a new conflict as then army chief Pervez Musharraf sent forces across the line dividing Kashmir. And by October, Mr Sharif had been ousted by Gen Musharraf in a bloodless coup.
Mr Sharif’s return to power 14 years later has raised concern that he will again cross swords with the military, which has long controlled the country’s foreign and security policies.
Mr Sharif sought to play down his perceived enmity towards the army, saying he only blamed Gen Musharraf for the coup, not the entire service. “I think the rest of the army resented Gen Musharraf’s decision,” he said.
“So I don’t hold the rest of the army responsible for that.”
He said that as prime minister he would ensure that the military and the civilian government work together on the myriad problems facing the country. In an ironic twist, Gen Musharraf is currently under house arrest after returning from self-imposed exile, and Mr Sharif will need to decide whether to press treason charges against him in the Supreme Court.
Open to like-minded allies
Mr Sharif said his PML-N won enough of the 272 National Assembly seats to rule on its own, but suggested he was open to allies joining his government.
“I am not against any coalition. But as far as Islamabad is concerned, we are ourselves in a position to form our own government,” he said. “All those who share our vision, we will be happy to work with them.”
Mr Sharif’s biggest challenges are likely to be closer to home — fixing the shattered economy, ending an appalling energy crisis, coping with poverty and tackling a Taliban insurgency.
Another bailout from the International Monetary Fund to avoid a new balance of payments crisis is seen as inevitable.
Mr Sharif suggested that he would be willing to implement politically sensitive reforms to secure an IMF lifeline.
He has picked Senator Ishaq Dar as his finance minister in the new cabinet, a party spokesman said on Monday. Mr Dar had “all the facts and figures at his fingertips” and would present in June the budget for the next financial year, Siddiqul Farooq said.
Mr Dar, who served as finance minister in a previous cabinet of Mr Sharif in the 1990s, has said he plans to push provincial governments to collect agricultural taxes, a policy that can set him on a collision course with some of the PML-N’s wealthy backers.
US war against terrorism, drone attacks
Mr Sharif said ahead of the election that Pakistan should reconsider its support for the US war against terrorism and suggested he was in favour of negotiations with the Taliban.
As prime minister-elect, Mr Sharif chose his words carefully on Monday, saying Islamabad and Washington have “good relations” and “need to listen to each other”.
Asked about US drone strikes against militants on Pakistani soil, which many see as a violation of sovereignty, he referred to it as a “challenge” to sovereignty.
“We will sit with our American friends and talk to them about this issue,” he said.
“Of course we have taken this matter up very seriously. I think this is a very serious issue, and our concern must be understood properly.”
The CIA’s drone campaign targeting Al Qaeda and other militants has been extremely controversial in Pakistan, where people say it frequently kills innocent civilians — something Washington denies — and that it violates Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Mr Sharif promised Pakistan’s “full support” as the United States withdraws combat troops from Afghanistan next year. “If there are concerns on either side I think we should address those concerns and strengthen this relationship.”
The US and Nato are due to withdraw most of their troops from war-torn Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and Pakistan will be a key transit point for shipping home equipment overland to the Karachi port.
“We will extend full support to them and we will see everything goes smoothly,” Mr Sharif said, hours after President Barack Obama said Washington was ready to work with Islamabad “as equal partners” and welcomed the transition.
Pakistan will likely play a strong role in any reconciliation deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Nawaz Sharif urged Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf to drop his claims of vote rigging, saying “I think we should all show sportsman’s spirit and accept the results of the elections.”—Agencies