The Indian PM's surprise Pakistan visit proves that he wants to improve trade ties with Islamabad. Pakistan's premier means business too, but his country's powerful army benefits from hostility, writes DW's Shamil Shams.
Just months ago, Indian Deputy Minister for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said New Delhi could "carry out surgical strikes at the place and time of its own choosing," in an apparent warning to Islamabad. The border clashes along the divided Kashmir region had made Indo-Pakistani ties very tense, and the politicians of the two neighboring countries had ratcheted up war rhetoric substantially.
The relations between the two South Asian countries have never been friendly since both gained independence from British rule in 1947, but the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which India blames on Pakistan-based Islamists, probably constitute the biggest recent setback to peace efforts in the region. But when Hindu nationalist politician Narendra Modi came to power last year, the ties began to thaw, as Modi made the first move and invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration ceremony in New Delhi. Sharif reciprocated the gesture, visiting India despite domestic opposition - from the country's Islamist groups as well as the powerful military.
Now Modi has once again showed immense courage and statesmanship by briefly stopping over in Lahore en route to New Delhi. It was a symbolic visit, and the meaning was clear: the Indian premier wants to engage with Pakistan's civilian leadership and improve bilateral ties. He was not there to sign trade deals or to discuss the Kashmir conflict with Pakistani leadership; he was there to deliver the message of peace. And the fact that PM Sharif greeted Modi with open arms is proof that his government, too, wants cordial relations with New Delhi.
Modi and Sharif are popular leaders in their respective countries, but they are also businessmen. Modi's economic policies for India are not beyond criticism, but he is known as a leader who puts business interests above politics. Sharif, too, wants to start trade with India and open the borders. His gigantic Ittefaq Group of industries would definitely benefit from trade with a rising economic power like India. But what, or rather who is stopping Sharif and Modi from ushering in an era of peace and prosperity in South Asia?
If Modi and Sharif benefit from improved relations between India and Pakistan, the Pakistani army has strategic and financial interests in keeping the ties hostile. The Kashmir conflict, the war in Afghanistan, and the growth of Islamist extremism in the country give the military generals an upper hand in domestic politics and foreign affairs. The conflicts also allow the army to keep the lion's share of the country's financial budget. Peace with India would ultimately cut the army down to size. Sharif wants to do it, but he has little power to confront the generals.
Sharif tried to improve relations with India during his second term as prime minister in the late 1990s, but his attempt was cleverly sabotaged by the military, which launched an undeclared war against India in the northern Kargil region. Last year, when things were getting better between the two nations, the army propped up a movement against Sharif's government. Much of Sharif's time and energy has been channeled towards dealing with the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's demonstrations and street protests since then. Now that the domestic situation is more favorable for Sharif - after his victory in local government elections - he wants to return his focus to the economy and trade.
Modi's brief Pakistan trip and his cordial meeting with Sharif will be opposed by Pakistani religious parties, who have the backing of the army. Khan, too, will try to use the situation to put pressure on the government. It is likely that he will join the Islamist groups and initiate another mass movement against the premier. This might force Sharif to back down once again.
Both Sharif and Modi will face fierce domestic opposition if they continue with the policy of peace and engagement. The role of the army in Indian politics is minimal, therefore Modi's challenge is not as big as Sharif's, but he, too, has to tame Hindu extremists in his own Bharatiya Janata Party.
Business and extremism cannot go hand in hand. For Sharif, it is time to come out of the army's shadow completely. It is time that he should either confront the generals and the anti-Indian groups or forget about economic interests. He has the support for his agenda. He is an elected prime minister after all, like Modi.
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