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Cautious optimism

Shamil Shams
May 26, 2014

Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif attended new Indian Premier Narendra Modi's oath-taking ceremony in an unexpected diplomatic gesture. Can it be the start of a new chapter in the complex Indo-Pakistani relations? DW examines.

People stroll past a sand sculpture of Indian Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi (L) and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, created by Indian sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik on a beach in Puri, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, May 25, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)
Image: Reuters

The first thing that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the media after he touched down at the airport in New Delhi on Monday, May 26, was that he had come to India with a message of peace.

"Forging cordial relations with all neighbors, including India, is foremost priority of Pakistan," Sharif said. The premier of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan had come to the neighboring country to attend the swearing-in ceremony of new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the recent Indian polls by a landslide majority, thereby ending the 10-year-long rule of the Indian National Congress-led coalition. Sharif, too, came back to power in May last year after a historic win in parliamentary vote.

It was the first time since 1947 - after India and Pakistan gained independence from the British - that a Pakistani prime minister attended an Indian premier's oath-taking event. Sharif is also set to hold a formal meeting with the Indian PM on Tuesday, May 27.


Not many people expected Sharif to accept Modi's invitation. Experts say it's an unprecedented step by a Pakistani leader to engage with a Hindu nationalist like Modi on such a high-level.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves upon his arrival at the airport in New Delhi May 26, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)
Sharif: "I am carrying a message of peace"Image: Reuters

Pakistan and India have fought three full-scale wars over the span of six decades and been entangled in multiple territorial disputes including that of Kashmir. The two nations have also seen a number of peace initiatives taking off and subsequently collapsing over the years.

However, Modi's own reputation makes it more difficult for Islamabad to start a dialogue the new PM. For many Pakistanis, including Sharif's own voters, Modi's name is synonymous with the 2002 Gujarat riots in which some 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed.

Modi, who was the chief minister of the northwestern state at the time, was accused of ordering the police not to intervene in the communal violence. Though Indian courts have acquitted Modi from any involvement in the riots, the anti-Muslim perception about the Indian leader is quite strong in neighboring Pakistan.

Despite that, Sharif opted to reciprocate Modi's friendly gesture. Does it mean that both India and Pakistan want to turn a new page in their relationship and bury the hatchet? Can Modi and Sharif achieve what their predecessors Manmohan Singh and Asif Ali Zardari couldn't?

Common ground

Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman, hailed Sharif's decision to travel to New Delhi, but warned against excessive optimism.

"We shouldn't expect too much from Sharif's India visit," Rehman told DW. "The change doesn't happen overnight. It is a good start though. Both Modi and Sharif received historic mandates in their respective countries, and that adds to the responsibility," she said.

Despite Rehman's cautious optimism, a number of observers are quite hopeful about a potential improvement of Indo-Pakistani ties. They say the fact that Sharif made a phone call to Modi immediately after the Indian election results came out on May 16, suggests that he does not want the perception about the controversial Indian politician to overshadow bilateral ties.

Munawar Saeed Bhatti, Pakistan's former High Commissioner to the Indian capital New Delhi, says both Sharif and Modi have already showed the willingness to maintain a good working relationship. "Sharif would like to take up matters with the BJP where he left them during his second term as PM from 1997 to 1999," said the former diplomat. "The election rhetoric won't have an impact on the relations between the South Asian neighbors," Bhatti told DW.

In the late 1990s, former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was also a BJP leader, developed good relations with Sharif during the Pakistani leader's second term as prime minister. "At that time people were apprehensive about the future of the bilateral relations. But we saw that Vajpayee came to Pakistan on Sharif's invitation and the two leaders signed the historic Lahore Declaration in 1999 to improve ties," journalist Anwer Sen Roy told DW.

As much as Modi is disliked by some secular Indians and Pakistanis for his right-wing politics, he is admired by many for spearheading the economic success of the state of Gujarat. Analysts say that the fact that Sharif, too, is a businessman could bring him closer to Modi.

The Pakistani government was close to awarding India the "Most Favored Nation" economic status in December last year. However, the move was postponed. Now that the BJP is in the government, Sharif is likely to make a decision on it soon.

Nationalism and religious sentiments

But experts warn that economic interests can easily be undermined by nationalistic and religious sentiments in the two countries.

In 2008, Indo-Pakistani relations broke down completely after ten Pakistan-based gunmen carried out coordinated terror attacks in various parts of India's financial capital Mumbai, killing 166 people. New Delhi accuses Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group of orchestrating the attacks, a charge Islamabad denies.

Despite an ideal beginning to a new chapter in India's relationship with Pakistan, a single incidence of terror on either side of the border can bring the ties to an abrupt and ugly end.

New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo:REUTERS/Adnan)
Does Modi want to shed the anti-Pakistan perception?Image: Reuters

Farooq Sulehria, a London-based Pakistani journalist and researcher, says that every time relations between the two countries begin to ease, there are always some "elements" which try to derail the peace process. "There has never been a real peace process between India and Pakistan. It has only been a short process of "cooling down" emotions and tensions. This has been happening since 1947," Sulehria told DW.

Hafiz Saeed, who once headed Lashkar-e-Taiba and is accused of planning the Mumbai terror attacks, said Sharif's visit to India was "regrettable."

"Modi's hands are colored with the blood of Muslims," Saeed told the media in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. "Sharif's decision to meet Modi is against the honor of the Pakistani nation. He should not act against Pakistan's interests. He is only trying to appease India and the US," the hard-line cleric added.

Analysts also say that apart from Islamists, Sharif's cordial attitude towards India and Modi might also irk Pakistan's powerful military. Sulehria points out that civilian leaders in Pakistan have little say when it comes to Indo-Pakistani relations. He is of the view that lasting peace between India and Pakistan can not be reached without the civilian control of Pakistan's India policies. The ball is in Sharif's court, he says.

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