Patience needed for Sharif's India goals
By Ramesh Ramachandran
NEW DELHI - Manmohan Singh, already the third-longest serving prime minister in India's history, is hunting for a legacy ahead of the next elections scheduled in 2014. A new government has just been elected in Pakistan in what is the first transition from one civilian government to another in that country.
Prime Minister-elect Nawaz Sharif has identified rescuing the Pakistani economy as his number one priority. The Lion of Punjab, as he is popularly known, has also shared his vision of peace and prosperity with India.
We got a glimpse of his vision in his party's, the Pakistan Muslim
League (Nawaz)'s, election manifesto, which is entitled, "Strong economy - Strong Pakistan". It reads: "The country could be a bridge between energy rich Central Asia and Iran on one side and energy deficit countries like China and India on the other. Pakistan's coastal belt facilitates access to warm waters and oil rich Gulf, as well as international oil supply lines passing through the Strait of Harmuz (sic). Pakistan can also develop a flourishing transit economy because it provides the shortest land routes from Western China to the Arabian Sea, through the Gwadar Port, while linking India with Afghanistan and CAR [Central Asian Republics] and providing land route from Iran to India and access to the Central Asian Republics to the Arabian Sea and India for oil/gas pipelines."
Manmohan has already spoken to Mr Sharif, congratulated him on his election victory and invited him to visit India. Mr Sharif, who had expressed his desire to visit India in an interview to an Indian journalist visiting Lahore, has now followed it up by saying that he would be happy if Manmohan visits Pakistan for his inauguration.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) kept up the conversation by suggesting that there is no specific proposal of Manmohan visiting Pakistan as no formal invitation has been received. An Indian media report cited government "sources" as indicating that the prime minister could travel to Pakistan at a later date.
The attendant euphoria in a section of the media and the spinmeisters in the ruling Congress party and its government, all seem to make a point that while Manmohan may have said in January this year after the beheading of an Indian soldier by Pakistan that "there cannot be business as usual" with that country, Nawaz Sharif is a man India can do business with.
A sense of deja vu cannot be helped here; perhaps it is only to be expected in any consideration of the history of India-Pakistan relations.
The year was 2008. Prime Minister Manmohan was about to complete four years in office when Pakistan went to the polls. Thirty-six days after the elections, and the evening after inauguration, he telephoned Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani and greeted him on his assumption of office of the prime minister of Pakistan.
By May 20, Pranab Mukherjee had landed in Islamabad for foreign minister-level talks with Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who was to declare the following day at a joint news conference that "our government is ready for grand reconciliation for the resolution of longstanding issues that need to be resolved peacefully through dialogue and in a manner that is dignified and commensurate with the self-respect of the involved parties".
Qureshi asserted for good measure that "it has been decided that this visit [of the Indian prime minister] will take place this year", adding that "No, we cannot say it will happen this month. Both sides want that before the visit, there should be sufficient progress, for which the chances are very bright."
The then Pakistan People's Party (PPP) chairman Asif Ali Zardari revealed his mind on his vision for relations with India in an interview to the Press Trust of India (PTI). Asked if he saw economics as being the driving force in bilateral relations, Mr Zardari told PTI's Pakistan correspondent: "Yes, I can't afford 180 million people with the poverty level today, but I have got water, millions of acres of virgin lands ... I can feed India and the world. On the border with India, I have got gas and oil. I can convert all that into product and market it to myself and to India. Then, I have a 1,100-mile [1,700 kilometer] coastline, which is virgin."
Mr Zardari didn't stop at that. He said Pakistan could act as a "force multiplier" for India's economy through increased cooperation in key sectors like energy. Mr Zardari went on to suggest:
You can't expand Kolkata port. With today's technology, I can make 20 deep sea ports and an economic zone in Gwadar. I can have high-speed cargo trains, have a 17-18 hour turnaround period from your railway lines and the products will be available to you. You cannot put up gas containers on Mumbai beach, but I can put up [on the Pakistani coastline] any number of gas containers [and acquire gas from] all sorts of friendly Muslim countries where I, the PPP and the Government of Pakistan have influence. And we dovetail it, we create economic zones owned by the people.
Mr Zardari also said in the interview that his "model for India-Pakistan relations" was to create economic zones along the India-Pakistan border, use Pakistan's coal reserves in Thar to generate power that could be exported to India, and even acquire gas from "friendly Muslim countries" that could be supplied to India. (Here it is interesting to note the statement issued after the foreign minister-level talks took care to state India and Pakistan "reiterated their commitment to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project and had a useful exchange of views in this regard.")
The current discourse on India and Pakistan reminds this writer of the late K Subrahmanyam, a former convenor of India's National Security Advisory Board. I remember talking to him in 2008, when a prime ministerial visit to Pakistan was a topic of discussion and debate within the government and without. Mr Subrahmanyam argued that a visit by the prime minister will strengthen the hands of the civilian government in Pakistan. "It has much more to do with lending legitimacy and showing support to the new government of Pakistan," he said.
However, he qualified it by noting that Pakistan had not stabilized yet and visiting that country at the time might not allow India to make full use of it. He urged patience, when I asked him about the likely outcomes or deliverables from such a visit. "Where we must move forward quickly, like the India-US nuclear deal, we don't act fast. Where we have to be patient, we show great hurry."
Unfortunately for Mr Subrahmanyam and Indians like him, what unfolded in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, only served to test India's patience.
With Nawaz Sharif there is more historical baggage: Kargil, 1999; and Mumbai, 1993. Both took place in his two previous stints as prime minister. Perhaps anticipating a sense of caution in India at Sharif's electoral victory, retired Pakistani general Talat Masood told the Hindustan Times newspaper published from New Delhi that "Nawaz Sharif is very serious about better relations with India. [President Asif Ali] Zardari was thwarted by the establishment. Being a Punjabi and a mandate from Punjab, Sharif can do much more."
Similar sentiments are shared by a section of Pakistan watchers in India. However, what New Delhi needs to appreciate is that "doing a Sheikh Hasina" on Sharif can be counter-productive: First feting him and later leaving him in the lurch, similar to the manner in which India treated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh over a land boundary agreement or sharing of the waters of the Teesta river, could give rise to unintended consequences. Therefore, India would do well to do its homework properly.
As Lt Gen Asad Durrani (Retd), a former chief of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's intelligence agency, told me a few years ago: "Making peace means compromises, but India does not want to pay the price. India believes Pakistan is suffering today, and therefore India can wait and not make gestures. What needs to be understood is that peace is give and take, and sometimes it involves changes in position."
It can be reasonably argued that the Pakistani military will continue to call the shots insofar as Afghanistan is concerned and/or that Sharif will allow the generals to handle Afghan affairs in the run-up to the withdrawal of US combat troops by the end of 2014. However, what cannot be said with any degree of certainty is how he would ensure, as per his party's manifesto:
i) That the formulation and determination of foreign policy remains the sole preserve of its elected representatives, while the implementation and execution shall be assigned to relevant departments and agencies by the Federal Cabinet;
ii) That "for purposes of regular and systematic coordination and consideration of all matters related to national security, a Cabinet Committee on Defence and National Security, to be headed by the Prime Minister and assisted by a Permanent Secretariat, will be established to maintain democratic oversight of all aspects of foreign, defense and national security policies";
iii) That "all institutions, whether civil or military, including those dealing with security and/or intelligence matters, act in accordance with the law, and under the instructions and directives of the Federal Cabinet"; and
iv) "democratic and parliamentary oversight on intelligence services".
And then there are a host of other issues that would have a bearing on domestic politics in Pakistan, such as:
i) Relations between Sharif's PML(N) and the PPP;
ii) Sharif's choice for president of Pakistan (presidential elections have to be held by September), army chief and chief justice;
iii) the economy;
v) extremism and safety of minorities;
vi) employment; and
vii) export of terror to India.
Pakistan-watchers in India will have little difficulty in conceding that Nawaz Sharif is riding a tiger what with so many domestic challenges confronting him, which will demand his attention for some time. Prudence dictates that India will be ready when Pakistan is ready; until then he can do with India's benefit of doubt and time.
Ramesh Ramachandran is an Indian journalist based in New Delhi. His writings focus on the intersection of foreign affairs and politics. He has been associated in various capacities with The Asian Age, The Tribune, Eenadu Television, The Times of India and The Pioneer over the last 18 years. The views expressed here are his own.