New Delhi: Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi may have exchanged messages of “peace, cooperative ties, and stability” after Sharif’s unexpected rise to power this week, but no major breakthrough is expected in relations between the arch-rivals.
Ties between the neighbours have been at historic lows and Sharif’s insistence on “settlement” of the Kashmir issue and Modi underlining a region “free of terror” indicate that there is no change in the core concerns of Islamabad and New Delhi, diplomatic and security sources told ThePrint.
However, both sides could try and push for normalising their diplomatic ties through “baby steps” such as appointing envoys in each other’s capitals, they said.
On Monday, hours before he was sworn in, Shehbaz Sharif said he wanted “good ties” with India, but said the Kashmir issue needed to be resolved for that to happen. In response, Modi congratulated Sharif on his new role but insisted on a region “free of terror”, emphasising that India wanted “peace and stability”.
In response, Sharif said Tuesday that Pakistan’s sacrifices in fighting terrorism were “well-known”, and also blamed his predecessor, Imran Khan, for not taking “serious and diplomatic efforts” to resolve the Kashmir issue after the abrogation of Article 370 and the division of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, J&K and Ladakh, by the Modi government in 2019.
Article 370, read in conjunction with Article 35A, permits the state to draft its own constitution, and restricts Parliament’s legislative powers over the state.
For context, when he was first elected in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Shehbaz Sharif’s brother Nawaz, then the prime minister of Pakistan, to his swearing-in ceremony. Modi even made a surprise visit to Pakistan the following year to attend the wedding of Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter in Lahore.
However, ties between the two countries began to sour in 2016, first with the militant attack in Pathankot in January 2016, where an attack on the Indian Air Force base killed seven security personnel, and then a second one in Uri in September, when 18 soldiers were killed after armed gunmen stormed a military base.
Reinstating sacked high commissioners
Reinstating high commissioners in each other’s countries is likely to be the “first and foremost” decision of the new government in Islamabad — something that New Delhi has also been pushing for through back-channel talks, sources said.
After Article 370 was abrogated, Pakistan’s then-PM Imran Khan downgraded diplomatic ties and recalled the high commissioner from New Delhi.
“The main force behind all of these is (Pakistan army chief) Gen. Bajwa. He is in the driver’s seat. We are back to a moment when peace can be negotiated. But the question is if India is ready,” Ayesha Siddiqa, senior fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, told ThePrint.
Siddiqa, author of Military Inc., a book on Pakistan’s military economy, also said that under Shehbaz Sharif, the high commissioners could be reinstated and back-channels talks will be given more importance.
New Delhi also hopes that the back-channel talks will continue between both sides, sources said.
According to the sources, it is due to the ongoing backchannel talks that agreement on the Line of Control, which was reached between both sides in February 2021, still holds.
Vijay Nambiar, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, said to begin with, both sides will probably take steps to try and upgrade their relations to high commissioner level. “That way, both sides can commence talking, but progress is unlikely since pressing issues like Kashmir and Article 370 are unlikely to be addressed. But the main call has to be taken by the (Pakistan) Army, which as of now, is keeping itself out from what is happening politically,” he said.
No movement likely on Kashmir
According to sources, while both sides may take some initial steps toward normalcy, there will not be any movement on the Kashmir problem in the near future.
This is because Pakistan will once again head for general elections, most likely by the second half of this year. It also remains to be seen if the coalition that put Shehbaz Sharif in power can remain together.
The Modi government will not reach any kind of settlement with Pakistan this soon, the sources said. Additionally, the Modi government will remain firm on the position it has held so far: That talks and terror cannot go together.
“Under the new government, there could be some people-to-people contacts, but no major initiative is likely,” Nambiar said. “If anything, Shehbaz Sharif might feel that upping the ante vis-à-vis India could help him in the election. And so, they will continue talking about Jammu & Kashmir and 370.”
Nambiar said the Pakistan Army has been trying to preserve its leverage by keeping out of the internecine strife.
“This entire political drama has embarrassed the army, which it sees as having hurt Pakistan’s image outside the country,” Nambiar said. “The Pakistan Army is also trying to maximise its leverage to maintain whatever advantages it has been able to reclaim vis-à-vis Afghanistan and China. China has made it clear that it is dealing with the army and that it considers it the bedrock of whatever political stability there is in the country. This is helping the army to keep all options to itself.”
According to Siddiqa, there is much more readiness in Pakistan to solve the Kashmir issue than there is in India. She believes Pakistan will once again resort to the so-called Musharraf Formula on Kashmir.
For now, though, Sharif will be busy managing the domestic economy, which is in a state of collapse, she said.
An editorial in The Dawn newspaper concurred. “Fixing the broken economy is probably the most formidable challenge facing Mr Sharif’s cabinet, and he should place it on top of his agenda,” it said.
According to Siddiqa, Pakistan needs the confidence of the US as well as Saudi Arabia to move ahead. However, China will continue to be its all-weather friend, regardless of who heads the government.
(Edited By Uttara Ramaswamy)