Several years ago, while in the midst of a formal interview with then Pakistani Prime Minister (PM), Nawaz Sharif, his younger brother, Shabaz strode into the room, listened for a few minutes and then started to pitch in with answers, unasked. Each interruption was more strident in tone, even as the older, more charismatic and diplomatic of the two, tried to calm him down.
Speaking of the unfinished business of 1947, Shabaz Sharif asked, “Why only Kashmir? What about Hyderabad?” On request, the tape recorder was switched off and the interview was rescheduled for the next day.
Shabaz is now the PM and heads an unwieldy coalition that has its task cut out for it. Has the burden of the top job mellowed him down? Will he, with the help of his older brother — openly predisposed to the idea of better ties with India — be able to take a few steps to untie a relationship that has consistently nosedived since the terror attacks in Uri and Pulwama, and the momentous events of August 2019, when the history and geography of Jammu and Kashmir were altered?
A new dispensation usually comes with some space for new beginnings. PMs Shabaz Sharif and Narendra Modi have exchanged messages on social media and written introductory letters to each other, but that is the diplomatic norm. The same was done when Imran Khan took over as Pakistan’s PM.
Shabaz has inherited not just a troubled legacy on the India-Pakistan front but has also become PM — a long-standing dream — at a time when the country’s economy is drained under the burden of subsidies. For example, can Shahbaz unfreeze the subsidy on petrol announced by the Imran Khan government? Technically he can, but he will be acutely aware of the uneasy fact that the anti-incumbency will swiftly switch to him. Perhaps aware of this, he announced some early populist measures: An increase in minimum wages and a hike in pension rates.
“The burden of anti-incumbency will shift very quickly and Shahbaz Sharif, who was in favour of trade with India as the Punjab chief minister, may look at opening up trade and travel,’’ says Sharat Sabharwal, who served as India’s high commissioner to Pakistan. He warns against expecting any grand gestures because “Imran Khan is being very aggressive and will dub any pro-India move as a sell-out”.
There were several big moves in the past when Nawaz was the PM. He came for Modi’s swearing-in in 2014, much against the wishes of the all-powerful army establishment. Modi reciprocated by dropping in at his home for his granddaughter’s wedding and even agreed to allow a team, comprising the ISI, to visit an out of bounds Indian Air Force facility in Pathankot that had been struck by terrorists who came across the Line of Control from Pakistan.
But 2022 is vastly different. Nawaz, currently in London, has been barred from contesting elections for life by a Supreme Court order. His immensely popular daughter, Maryam Sharif, too, is barred for 10 years. Shabaz is facing money laundering charges and is currently out on bail. He has taken charge and announced a team of ministers but has at least eight coalition partners and several independents to juggle and please. All of them face the prospect of an election — that can take place any time between seven to about 16 months from now. Each party is aware that they are essentially political rivals and have to face the electorate sooner rather than later.
Also coming up in November, is the retirement of army chief Qamar Bajwa. Appointing army chiefs is always a very tricky proposition. No one knows this better than the Sharifs. Nawaz chose General Pervez Musharraf and faced a coup and several years in exile, after a short, but sharp, war in Kargil. Bajwa, of late, has been speaking of better ties with India but as a former diplomat, Sabharwal said, “The talk of peace is tactical. It has helped lower the heat and the army is busy with America and Afghanistan.”
Imran Khan burnt Pakistan’s bridges with the United States by alleging a foreign conspiracy to his ouster and the army is busy trying to repair that relationship. India will be lower down in the army and Shabaz’s list of things to do.
“The establishment and Shabaz’s space for manoeuvre on India is limited due to domestic compulsions. It remains to be seen if they will be willing to open a little on the trade front,” says Vivek Katju, former diplomat and veteran Pakistan watcher.
In his first speech after being sworn in as PM, Shabaz talked about Kashmir — as every Pakistani PM must do for domestic reasons — and blamed Imran Khan for not fighting a diplomatic battle after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was nixed in August 2019.
The near breakpoint in the India-Pakistan relationship came in 2019 when Imran Khan withdrew the high commissioner to India. He also put a halt to trade with India, a step that hurts Pakistan more than it does India.
While India is firm on its “terror and talks can’t go together” position on Pakistan, it did agree to a cessation of hostility along the Line of Control, in February 2021. What is important to remember, however, is that this was negotiated through backchannel contacts and concluded with help from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was not a bilateral exercise. A UAE diplomat acknowledged as much.
India is closely watching the Line of Control as the snows melt. This is the time when infiltration picks up and the heat is directly felt in the Valley. While India has noted the 31-year jail term for Hafiz Saeed, the conspirator behind the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008, the view in the government is that this is aimed more at the Financial Action Task Force which has grey-listed Pakistan.
According to Ayesha Siddiqa, a military historian and political commentator, “India and Pakistan have arrived at another moment. We have the moment but we don’t have the time.”
Caught between an economical meltdown, a strident Imran Khan, and an impending election, India probably knows there is little room for any breakthrough in the India-Pakistan détente.
As Sabharwal said, “The only hope should be for a few steps back from where the relationship nosedived.” The steps could include the restoration of high commissioners and the opening up of trade. Or, “cricket and commerce,” as Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the defence committee in the Senate said.
Small, incremental steps are, indeed, the only way forward.
The views expressed are personal