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Pakistan Army must be on board with Shehbaz peace call. It’s a change of heart helping Modi

Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif and army chief Gen Syed Asim Munir have time till the general election to either become heroes or dispel the impression that they have 'sold out' to India.

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Is peace in danger of breaking out in the Indian subcontinent?

In the wake of Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s comments on “learning lessons” from the three wars the country has fought with India — which has elicited a wide range of reactions — the latter has invited Pakistan foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Goa in May.

Make no mistake, this is a clear overture to Sharif’s outreach. Never forget that the PM would have never made these comments on a TV channel if they were not first cleared by the all-powerful Pakistan military establishment.

In fact, no one would be surprised if Shehbaz’s comments and India’s consequent response were carefully orchestrated by the respective political establishments.

Go back in time over the last week and scour the media. Note that it was only the hand-maidens of the government, notably some Hindi TV channels, which indulged in rank dismissal (“Pakistan is on its knees with this offer”) of Shehbaz’s peace moves; while experts offered both cynicism and realism and ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief took a middle path, the Ministry of External Affairs always maintained low-profile caution.

There’s no need to euphorically jump the gun, however. Remember that Bilawal Bhutto made some nasty comments about Kashmir in the recently held UN General Assembly session; surely, India will watch for any critical commentary emanating from Islamabad between now and May.

If Islamabad wants to keep up this very fragile momentum, it needs to either postpone its fine feelings or develop the art of speaking much but saying little.

Also read: Pakistan’s peace calls with India scream strategic desperation. It won’t bear results

A change of heart helping Modi

The opportunity has arrived after several years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leading India to the G20 this year, is keenly aware that it doesn’t behove the nation to have a hostile neighbour — what kind of a leader would that be anyway? Of course, the PM is conscious of his and India’s image.

Certainly, Modi is not averse to second chances. He is now picking up on his so-called sudden visit to Lahore in 2015 — when he flew to the Raiwind suburbs to attend former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding.

What helps Modi this time around is that the Pakistani military establishment or “deep state”, which controls foreign policy with India (as well as other key relationships like the US, Afghanistan, Russia) is believed to have had a serious change of heart.

According to the influential Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, former army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa not only pushed for the opening of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor in November 2019 – months after the August revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir — but was fully in favour of PM Modi visiting Pakistan on 9 April 2021, including a pilgrimage to the Hinglaj Mata shrine in Lasbela, Balochistan.

Mir goes on to say that the trip was short-circuited by then-PM Imran Khan — he appointed himself as the chief voice on Kashmir, called Modi names like “Hitler” and decided to upstage the Pakistan Army by linking trade with India to a return to the pre-2019 status quo in the Valley.

Imran Khan’s right-wing populism won the day. Kashmir is one of those weather-beaten subjects in Pakistan where emotion wins each time — it takes strong leaders like Nawaz Sharif and even Pervez Musharraf to tamp down the outpouring and channelise it into constructive avenues.

But to get an authentic flavour of how Imran Khan abused Gen Bajwa’s confidence – some would say Bajwa was getting only a taste of his own medicine – it’s time to read Asma Shirazi’s book, Kahani Baray Ghar Ki. The book is in Urdu, a compilation of the columns that she wrote for the BBC, a searing account of how the cosy relationship between Khan and Bajwa deteriorated so badly over 2018-2022 that Bajwa threw in his lot with the opposition, and helped bring Shehbaz Sharif to power.

A highlight of the book is the conflict between Imran Khan and Bajwa over then-ISI chief Faiz Hameed – Imran wanted to keep him as head of the spy agency while Bajwa wanted a new man; after a three-week-long standoff, Bajwa won. Shirazi covered it minutely, which led to her being viciously trolled by Khan’s closest confidants.

Also read: Pakistan PM is aiming for Peace Prize, not peace talk. India has seen this…

The link with India

So, what does this internal state of play in Pakistan’s powerhouses have to do with the India-Pakistan relationship? Everything, of course. Hamid Mir and Asma Shirazi re-underline the power of the Pakistani military establishment. Equally, Bajwa understands that his face-off with Imran Khan has cast a shadow on the reputation of the Pakistan Army.

For the time being at least, no one knows if the new army chief, Gen Asim Munir, will continue to implement Bajwa’s renewed vows not to interfere in Pakistani politics. But the fact remains that Shehbaz Sharif could not have made his comments about “learning lessons from the three wars Pakistan has lost to India” to the Al Arabiya channel if the Pakistan Army was not on board.

It is also being speculated why Sharif picked Al Arabiya, said to be the long arm of Saudi public diplomacy, to make his comments. Apart from the fact that the Saudis have just decided to roll over $11 billion of Pakistan’s debt to the Kingdom, it is likely that Sharif may have wanted to demonstrate his conviction towards subcontinental peace, knowing well that the Saudis and the UAE have substantial influence in New Delhi.

Remember that both these countries sent emissaries in 2019 to Delhi, in the wake of the Balakot missile attack, to tamp down tensions. The Saudi-Emirati duo also separately travelled to Rawalpindi/Islamabad, urging them to reach out and compromise. Nothing came of that effort because Delhi politely told the Arab countries to back off.

Perhaps Sharif wagers that it is time to fly the peace dove again. That he is killing several birds with one stone – currying favour with the US, with whom Delhi has good relations and Imran Khan has a publicly bad one, while doing his own Army’s bidding at the same time.

Flying a test balloon is a good tactic. Shehbaz Sharif and Pakistan’s new army chief have time till the SCO meeting in May to which Bilawal Bhutto has been invited, to either become heroes or dispel the impression that they have “sold out” to India.

As for India, crafting a response to Pakistan is also about the kind of country it wants to be. It has now lobbed the ball back into Pakistan’s court. As 2023 unfolds, it’s a good debate to have not just for India-Pakistan, but for the entire region as well.

The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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