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Nawaz Sharif’s Call for Introspection Fuels Debate on India-Pakistan Relations

Former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif after resuming his office in Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) on May 28, 2024, after six years, remarked: “On May 28, 1998, Pakistan carried out five nuclear tests. After that Vajpayee Saheb came here and made an agreement with us. But we violated that agreement.. it was our fault”.

Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shehbaz Sharif is the current Prime Minister of Pakistan, while his daughter Maryam Nawaz is the Chief Minister of the country’s most populous Punjab province. She happens to be the first woman to hold the office.  One of the key reasons for the uneasy relationship between Nawaz Sharif, a three-time PM, and the Pakistan army has been their differing approach towards India. Sharif has consistently pitched for the normalization of ties with India, much to the displeasure of the Pakistan army.

In the early 1980s, Nawaz Sharif was inducted into Pakistan’s politics, by the army, when Pakistan was under the martial rule of late General Zia-Ul Haq. The differences between Sharif and the army grew in his second tenure (1997-1999). General Pervez Musharraf finally removed him in a coup in 1999 (Musharraf served as Pakistan’s President from 2001-2008).

During his third tenure as PM (2013-2017), Nawaz Sharif made attempts to mend fences with India. He attended PM Narendra Modi’s swearing in 2014, and Modi made an impromptu stop over at Lahore, on December 25, 2015, on his return from Kabul (Afghanistan). Sharif was removed in 2017.

Weeks before Pakistan’s controversial February 2024 general election which was manipulated by the Pakistan army in which PML-N emerged as the single largest party Sharif had lauded Pakistan’s neighbors, including India for their economic progress and flagged the need for Pakistan to introspect rather than blame others for its problems. Nawaz Sharif said: “Today where Pakistan has reached (in terms of the state of the economy) this is not done by India, the US or even Afghanistan. In fact, we shot ourselves in our own feet. They (a reference to the military) imposed a selected (government) on this nation by rigging the 2018 polls that led to the sufferings of the people and downfall of the economy,”

One of the key reasons, why Shehbaz Sharif (who also served as PM from April 2022- August 2023) emerged as the choice for Pakistan PM was his better terms with the army and his ability to run a coalition government. It has also been said that Nawaz Sharif gave up the PM’s position so that his daughter could become Chief Minister of Punjab.

Significance of Sharif’s statement

Nawaz Sharif’s recent statement, 26 years after Pakistan conducted its nuclear tests and 25 years after the Kargil conflict are significant. There has been talk of the Pakistani business community nudging Islamabad to resume bilateral trade with India. Pakistan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Ishaq Dar acknowledged the same in March 2024 (Pakistan had suspended trade ties with India, after the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir by India in August 2019). Islamabad’s response has been cautious.

During the Lok Sabha election campaign, PM Modi has taken a strong stance vis-à-vis Pakistan. In some interviews, he has also stated that his approach vis-à-vis Pakistan dubbed as ‘benign neglect’ by many is likely to continue. During the election campaign opposition parties, part of the India Alliance, have also not really alluded to any immediate normalization of ties with Pakistan in case they were to emerge winners on June 4, 2024. This approach is characterized by keeping some channels of communication open but avoiding any major initiatives. While campaigning in Panjab, Modi has on numerous occasions highlighted the opening of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor, in November 2019 as one of his government’s important achievements.

Several Indian strategic commentators and analysts have argued, that post the election results on June 4, 2024, there is unlikely to be any change in New Delhi’s Pakistan policy, many have argued against any steps towards normalization, including resumption of trade with Pakistan. On the Pakistani side, there is a belief that the political leadership facing economic challenges will not upset the apple cart and take any significant decision regarding the resumption of trade with India.

A few points need to be borne in mind. Nawaz Sharif is likely to have a strong influence on the Shehbaz Sharif government’s foreign policy and, as mentioned in the past he has been an ardent advocate of better ties with India. The former PM and current PML-N Chief also shared a reasonable rapport with Modi and has worked with all Indian PMs since 1990. On the Indian side too, while the new government is likely to follow a cautious approach, its Pakistan policy will be driven by realism. While reacting to Nawaz Sharif’s May 28th statement, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Spokesperson said: “You are aware of our position on the issue. We note that there is an objective view emerging in Pakistan as well.”

 It would be pertinent to mention here, that despite strained ties, both countries did go ahead with the inauguration of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor in November 2019 and a ceasefire across the LoC in March 2021. UAE is supposed to have played an important role in brokering this agreement. It would be pertinent to point out here that Gulf countries like UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have significant leverage over Islamabad, have also been nudging Pakistan to re-orient ties with India. There has been a growing sentiment in favor of the resumption of trade with Pakistan, via the Wagah (Pakistan) -Attari (India) land-crossing, in Punjab (India). This has been an important issue, even during the Lok Sabha (LS) election campaign in Punjab, with candidates across party lines pitching for the same.

While it is always important to have realistic expectations when it comes to India-Pakistan ties re-opening of some channels albeit in a cautious, low key and incremental manner cannot be ruled out. Both Governments have several other domestic priorities and geopolitical challenges.

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Tridivesh Singh Maini

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is faculty member of OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.

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