Nawaz Sharif is all set to take over the reins of Pakistan after having won an impressive victory in the recently held elections. All eyes are set on the manner in which he relates to India. Will he live up to the encouraging words that he spoke just before and after the elections? Will Indo-Pakistan relations see the new positive vibes that he has promised to usher? The entire game will play out on the basis of the attitude that his government adopts towards Kashmir. Experts in Pakistan have no qualms about the importance of Kashmir. They continue to hold the view that Kashmir would need to be looked at because unless the issue is resolved, a qualitative change in relations between the two countries will not come by.
Officially, however, the government of Pakistan does hold take pains to suggest that it is not following a “Kashmir first” policy. Pakistani foreign office holds forth that it is not possible to have equal and measurable progress on all issues been taken up simultaneously. This posture looks good on paper but on ground it means that Pakistan can do what it wants to in Kashmir and expect to engage with India in talks on other issues, as has been happening for some time now. There is a need to go beyond this mindset. There is no point in talking till such time that Pakistan puts a lid on export of terror into India whether it is in Kashmir or any other part of the country. In case the terrorists are restrained, the results will be there for all to see and if this does not happen then not much progress in relations between the two countries can be expected.
Nawaz Sharif’s party’s manifesto said “Special efforts will be made to resolve the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, in accordance with the provisions of the relevant UN resolutions and the 1999 Lahore Accord and in consonance with the aspirations of the people of the territory for their inherent right of self-determination”. In his interactions after the election results were declared he exhibited an inclination to sideline the UN Resolutions in case India agrees to look at Jammu and Kashmir as a dispute. This is not much of a concession to offer since the implication is more or less the same. The derivative, as of now, is that his government will go through some hard nosed negotiations. Without a statesmanlike approach progress is not really possible, hence, diplomatically one can expect a status quo.
Nawaz Sharif also says that he will start from 1999; if this statement relates to the spirit of accommodation that was prevalent in 1999 then it is good. However, if it means starting talks from the situation of 1999 then the clock would be set back because much progress has been made since then, when Musharraf was in power and with the outgoing PPP government. There has been tremendous movement forward in the shape of CBM’s and other initiatives and it is not possible to ignore the same. For Kashmir those initiatives were remarkable. Nawaz would do well to read the files and factor in the progress to identify a new start point.
Another big factor is the manner in which the Pakistan army relates to the initiatives of the new government. The PPP had handed over all security issues and foreign policy to the army. The situation has to change because Sharif has come with a huge mandate and the army, weakened by operations against the militants and the Taliban, has to accommodate the civil authority.
Sharif’s initiative on India in the last few days have shaken the subcontinent, if the army has not reacted it can be presumed that it is more or less on the same page. Nonetheless, what is significant is that Sharif has not even taken oath as prime minister and General Kayani has held a long meeting with him. The details are not known but it can be taken for granted that Kashmir was discussed. Only time will tell if the army’s point of view will match with what Sharif has been saying publicly. Can the new prime minister create another history by getting the army to toe his line so far as the Kashmir policy is concerned?
The silver lining is that the army has also been softening its stand on Kashmir in view of the huge challenge that it is facing on its western frontier. This and a change in the hierarchy of the force with the superannuation of General Kayani may be of tremendous benefit to Sharif. One can only hope that he will have the wisdom of exploiting a favourable situation should it come his way.
Sharif’s right wing credentials and his traditional affinity to the Taliban that has, in no small measure, assisted in getting him on to the prime ministerial chair may cause a big impediment in his Kashmir policy. The militant extremists may stop short of agreeing to cease operations in Kashmir during the negotiations that Sharif has promised to conduct with them. In such a scenario Sharif may find it difficult to tread the path of reconciliation that he has promised.
The big hope is the deep personal interest Sharif has in resuming the peace process that resulted in the first ever official visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Pakistan during his previous tenure as Prime Minister. It led to the Lahore Declaration, which contained a road map for resolution of differences through dialogue. He may pick up the thread where they were abandoned. Beyond this slender hope there is no option for India but to desist from having too many expectations and maintaining even higher levels of vigilance Kashmir. If something good does come by it will be there for all to see. In the meantime there is no point in building castles in the air.