ISLAMABAD: Reciprocity will be name of the game as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif holds a unique bilateral meeting with Indian prime minister-designate Narendra Modi on the very next day of his inaugural.
In some ways, it may be a typical ceremony on May 27, but the record triumph Mr Modi has secured for his party in elections makes it significant for his domestic audience and keen international observers, especially when a Pakistani premier makes it to his inaugural, perhaps for the first time. And that too when bilateral relations have not made mentionable strides forward in the last decade or so. One step forward and two steps backward approach of Pakistan-India relations apart, a warm handshake, positive body language and soothing words will do.
Finally, a practicable indication to restart Pak-India peace dialogue process, with a clean slate if possible, will be enough for Sharif not to return empty handed. Domestic compulsions apart, over-emphasis by the Indian side on Mumbai attacks related inquiries pending in Pakistani courts, and the LoC related tensions in the disputed Kashmir region can prove a damper.
A get-to-know, confidence-building bilateral meeting is, however, expected to skip these talking points. But overly flashback coverage of bitter Pak-India relations by hawkish elements of the Indian media has potential to turn the much-trumpeted meeting into a non-starter. In this backdrop, many in Pakistan would still insist that its only a photo opportunity the Pakistani premier is embarking on in an overly optimistic way. But in the Pakistan-India context, ground realities of the present times suggest if both the premiers stay focused more on confidence building, they would soon be looked at with expectations and optimism by masses across the border.
Some of Sharif aides expect at least a practicable yet positive response from Modi’s side when an invitation to visit Pakistan in near future in extended, in most likelihood. Though Sharif’s inner circle is cautiously optimistic, many independent observers think of it as a calculated risk by a Pakistani premier, evenly poised to click or backfire as country’s powerful military establishment observes cautiously, yet minutely. Many would argue Sharif being a real chief executive of the country doesn’t need approval of military quarters for such a foreign sojourn, but Friday’s meeting between army chief General Raheel Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, premier’s younger brother, seemed to have taken place to discreetly gauge mood of the military establishment that still wields considerable power in decision making process, especially relations with India.
Such an exercise by the Punjab CM, ruling PML-N leaders think, is mandatory in the backdrop of mix baggage of Sharif-military relations of the last two decades. On his part, the Pakistani premier has not forgotten eventful months of year 1999 on the heels of tit-for-tat atomic test both the countries had conducted in the previous year. The year began with historical moments, with Indian premier Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelling to Lahore to sign a historic agreement with Pakistan.
Within months Kargil episode brought the two South Asian neighbours on the brink of a full fledge war. At the end of the same year, Sharif was sent packing through a military coup and eventually to eight-year-long exile in Saudi Arabia. Till date, Sharif strongly complains the way that historic move was scuttled. Since then, no Indian premier has turned up in Pakistan for a bilateral meeting despite repeated invitations by every Pakistan ruler, including former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf (the Kargil architect) whose historic India visit in year 2001 could not make a breakthrough in bilateral relations.
With bitter memories of the past still in his mind, the third-time Pakistani premier has taken a new initiative, this time more cautiously. A businessman’s gesture to a man having faced grass root realities of life as a small canteen contractor – both eyeing economic prosperity for their respective countries. Sharif had won a majority in the 2013 elections promising a fresh start with eastern border neighbour, India. In sharp contrast to the political situation in year 2007, as the country remains bogged down due to militancy hit western border areas and economic hardships, no major political party in Pakistan used anti-India rhetoric in the election campaign.
On this day, Sharif enjoys backing of almost all the mainstream political parties, like PPP, MQM, etc, who are bucking him up for this initiative. Some hardline religious outfits notwithstanding, his worst critics like mainstream politician Imran Khan, have not opposed his India sojourn. For now, Modi, many in Pakistan think, may not disappoint Sharif’s friendship overture as some Indian opposition parties start criticising his election campaign’s hawkish stance into pragmatic chief executive-to-be approach. And that too, even before his oath to office.
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