Pak-India: more of the same?

28 May 2014

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AFTER the smiles, handshakes, photo opportunities and feel-good stories on Monday, Tuesday brought the more serious business of actually grappling with the nature and substance of the Pak-India relationship. Sticking to his pre-election script of focusing on building closer economic ties while downplaying the big, historical security issues, Nawaz Sharif said many of the right things and tried his best to sustain the feel-good factor of his presence in Delhi. Yet, as snippets from the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr Sharif were leaked to the Indian media and then India’s own diplomats chose to take a tough line in public, it became clear — as if more clarity were needed — just how difficult it will continue to be to bridge the gap between India’s almost exclusive focus on terrorism and Pakistan’s wanting to expand talks to encompass many of the long-standing issues between the two sides.

As ever, there are tough questions to be asked about the intentions and/or capacity of both sides to deliver on their rhetoric of peace. Is Mr Modi really interested in moving forward on normalisation of ties with Pakistan? A couple of days into his prime ministership that is impossible to know. The generous explanation would cast Mr Modi’s invitation to Mr Sharif as a signal that the new Indian government wants to work on improving ties with Pakistan immediately and perhaps even meaningfully. The less charitable explanation would be that Mr Modi has cleverly bought himself goodwill internationally by hosting Mr Sharif, but did so in a way that really conceded nothing: the invitation itself was one to Saarc leaders and the selective leaks to the media after the prime ministerial meeting yesterday suggested that Mr Modi stuck to a hawkish script instead of a more peaceable one. With Mr Modi having run a campaign that focused almost entirely on domestic issues, there is little yet to go by on what a Modi-led BJP foreign policy will look like over the next five years. South Asians may be eternally hopeful, but peace between states that have been historical rivals needs something more.

On the Pakistani side, Mr Sharif’s mantra of business, trade and economy may be music to some ears, but it is in the security arena that many of the key decisions will need to be taken — and the battle for control fought. Unpleasant as it may be for Pakistanis to constantly be reminded of the Mumbai attacks when the Pakistani political leadership has been restrained about criticism on Kashmir or the ever-growing water-sharing problems, there is a domestic division of power that needs to be addressed. With Mr Sharif’s relationship with the army clearly going through a tense phase, is there really the capacity or the will here on both the civilian and military side to work together on crafting a new beginning with India?

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2014