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Improvement in ties?

May 27, 2013

MUCH has already been made of Nawaz Sharif’s overtures to India during his election campaign. The Indian high commissioner last week called on Sharif at Raiwind to discuss ways in which to boost bilateral ties.

For the international community, the prospect of improved Indo-Pak relations as an outcome of our recent elections is even more tantalising than the promise of a democratic Pakistan. But will the calendar of politics undermine Pakistan and India’s renewed chances for a rapprochement?

In many ways, the time is ripe in Pakistan for serious progress in its ties with India. Sharif, as a right-wing politician from Punjab, cannot be labelled a traitor for engaging with New Delhi. Having campaigned on an economic platform, he can sell better ties with India to the public as a means of kick-starting Pakistan’s (and more specifically, Punjab’s) economy.

The option of importing electricity from India is an additional sweetener at a time when reducing load-shedding must be one of the next government’s top priorities. Moreover, Sharif has an incomplete legacy in the form of the Lahore Declaration that needs tending during his third term.

The military is also more amenable to improved Indo-Pak ties at this juncture. Earlier this year, the army doctrine underwent a paradigm shift, identifying homegrown militancy, rather than India, as the biggest threat to Pakistan’s national security. Given that Pakistan’s use of ‘asymmetric warfare’ is a major sticking point for New Delhi, this shift is an important starting point for the dialogue going forward. As the country’s largest corporate player, the army also stands to benefit from the economic fillip that would result from better trade ties with India.

But how long will this window of opportunity stay open? The political calendar in the coming months leaves little time to build on the momentum that Sharif created during his election campaign.

To demonstrate his sincerity and ability to deliver on promises, Sharif’s first point of business vis-à-vis India should be granting the MFN status. However, his immediate need to make tough decisions about an IMF bailout and the economic reforms it will necessitate could deflate energy around other economic initiatives.

Similarly, India is closely following Sharif’s call to form a commission to investigate Kargil. The incoming prime minister has already made it clear that such a commission will focus on retired Gen Musharraf’s role and not spiral into a scrutiny of the army’s security policies. There has been talk of spiriting Musharraf out of Pakistan before the new government is sworn in. If this proves correct, in his absence, a Kargil commission will be an awkward business and unlikely to proceed.

Across the border, meanwhile, India is preparing for elections in 2014. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is looking inwards and will be more invested in addressing domestic issues such as economic growth and corruption than flirting with Pakistan. Moreover, Singh, who has made restraint towards Pakistan a political hallmark, is likely to avoid any cross-border engagement that could get him attacked from the right during an election cycle for being soft on terrorism.

In the run-up to elections, India is also more likely to focus on trade with China, as evidenced by Singh’s recent meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. India is seeking improved access to the Chinese market to address a soaring bilateral trade imbalance in China’s favour, all while working towards a trade turnover target of $100 billion by 2015.

The looming 2014 deadline for the International Security Assistance Force troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is also likely to hijack the Indo-Pak dialogue, leading to a focus on security rather than trade. India’s growing presence in Afghanistan — ranging from civilian aid and economic investment to training Afghan military and police personnel — is deeply problematic for the Pakistani establishment.

New Delhi urgently needs to clarify perceptions about the intent of its activities in Afghanistan and work with Islamabad to develop bilateral mechanisms for transparency in both countries’ engagements with Kabul. This difficult conversation could, however, minimise bilateral goodwill in other contexts.

The endgame in Afghanistan is also likely to focus international scrutiny on Pakistan’s position on militancy. In this context, India will be very interested in Sharif’s dealings with the Pakistani Taliban. He has called for talks, which echoes the shift in strategy on the part of Afghanistan and the US as well. But the nature of these talks (appeasement or one aspect of a robust counterterrorism strategy?) is an open question. And this question has greater significance given PML-N’s perceived linkages with Punjab-based militant groups, including sectarian and anti-India outfits.

Some analysts have expressed concerns that post-2014, the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan will leave many jihadis out of a job. This could lead to a resurgence of militancy in Kashmir. These fears mean that India will be directly interested in Sharif’s overall strategy for tackling the terrorist threat, including the anti-India variety. Without a clear stance against militancy, Sharif is unlikely to make serious headway with New Delhi despite his best intentions.

Despite these many challenges, Pakistan and India should not let the current window of opportunity close. The following months should be spent brainstorming ways of improving relations through matched concessions by both Pakistan and India. Not only Pakistan and India, but also the entire region stands to gain from the opening up of our eastern border.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf