Since 1997 Nawaz Sharif has unflinchingly espoused the cause of peace with India. But vested interests and domestic political compulsions in both countries have never allowed his initiatives to come to fruition.
In 1997, Mr Sharif designed the composite dialogue with India’s Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral but the latter couldn’t sell Kashmir’s inclusion in the talks to his compatriots, and India’s nuclear tests in 1998 put paid to the idea. Mr Sharif persisted and succeeded in signing the most significant peace accord with India’s Prime Minister, Atul Behari Vajpayee, in Lahore in 1999, but General Pervez Musharraf’s Kargil adventure derailed it completely. Upon returning to office in 2013, Mr Sharif defied advice from the “establishment” and attended the inauguration of Narendra Modi as India’s new prime minister so that he could establish trust and confidence. He also offered Most Favoured Nation Status to India, an unfulfilled Indian demand for the last two decades, and a win-win project for both countries (but a bigger win for India than Pakistan). But the BJP’s electoral constituencies, first in Kashmir and now in Bihar, have compelled it to take a hard line against Pakistan and reject Mr Sharif’s hand of goodwill. Undeterred, he has once again offered the olive branch to India, this time at the forum of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Mr Sharif’s latest peace proposal rests on four points: demilitarization of Kashmir on both sides; restoration of the 2003 ceasefire along the LoC; vacation of the Siachin Glacier by both militaries; refrain from threatening or using force to settle issues. Significantly, while noting the unresolved Kashmir dispute in the presence of specific UN Security Council Resolutions, he was careful not to muddy his peace proposals by “attacking” India in any way for increasing border tensions and conflict. He also sought to assure the world in general and India in particular that the consequences of terrorism in Pakistan have been far more adverse for Pakistan than for the region and a National Action Plan to uproot it is being vigorously implemented.
Mr Sharif carried a dossier of the Indian “hand” in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan. But he chose not to allude to it in his speech, preferring instead to hang on to it until India’s response was clear.
Mr Modi’s government has so far not demonstrated any desire to resolve even the smaller disputes with Pakistan, let alone Kashmir. Indeed, a policy of deliberately ratcheting up tensions seems to be its order of the day. Its decision to cancel secretary level talks last year on the pretext of meetings between the leaders of the Hurriet Conference and the Pakistan High Commissioner in Delhi was criticized even in India because it has been routine practice acceptable to all Indian governments, including those of the BJP, in the past. No less inexplicable has been its reluctance to sign a trade deal with Pakistan that India has coveted for decades and which Pakistan has finally offered. In fact, there is evidence of a bigger Indian “hand” in fomenting terrorism inside Pakistan today than in the past. It can also be argued that it is India that has embarked on a policy of heating up the border in pursuit of the same policy and not Pakistan which has a vested interest in keeping the ceasefire firmly in place because a bulk of its army is involved in anti-terrorism and insurgency operations in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan. In fact, it is Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan that is the source of instability and insecurity and has compelled the government to focus its energies internally and to the west rather than to India in the east.
There is only one explanation for India’s obdurate behaviour. The Modi government’s arch-Hindu constituency led by the RSS continues to weigh on its domestic and external policies. Just before the elections in Kashmir earlier this year, Mr Modi whipped up anti-secessionist sentiments and cancelled talks with Pakistan. As a result the BJP did well enough to cobble a coalition government in Kashmir. Now, in the run up to crucial elections in Bihar, it has whipped up anti-Pakistan rhetoric by heating up the border and resisting unconditional talks with Pakistan. Indian officials say even sporting links – e.g., scheduled cricket series between the two countries in December — suggesting any “normality” with Pakistan are off the table for now.
Under the circumstances, it is a moot point if and when the Modi government will respond to Mr Sharif’s latest peace overtures. Demilitarization of Kashmir and Siachin is far-fetched. Some Indian analysts think that if the BJP does well in Bihar next week, it may soften its stance on Pakistan and open lines of communication once again. Certainly, trade and cricket would benefit from a quick reduction of tensions, especially on the LoC. But even if the cricket series goes ahead, it is highly unlikely that Mr Modi will take a leaf from Mr Vajpayee’s visionary book and set about negotiating a long-term peace accord with Nawaz Sharif.