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Has Nawaz Sharif made the right decision?

Prime Minister of Pakistan has finally decided to participate in the inauguration of Indian Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi. It was an open secret, right from the beginning, that Nawaz Sharif wanted to attend but the announcement on Saturday came after two days of deliberations within Pakistan’s establishment — political, military and bureaucracy. According to some sources, Shahbaz Sharif also met Army Chief General Raheel Sharif on Friday night and conveyed him about the significance of the visit to India. The sources suggest that General Raheel Shairf wants a clear road map to talks on all issues not a cosmetic hand shake. The Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi and Foreign office in Islamabad has also recommended that Nawaz Shareef should undertake the visit to improve the bilateral relations. However last year, Manmohan Singh, then Indian Prime Minister, declined Sharif's invitation to attend his oath-taking ceremony.

Modi's BJP has long advocated a tough stance on Pakistan, a view reflected in his election campaign that produced a parliamentary majority. Modi is seen as a hardliner on issues of national security. Modi is seen by others as an “ego-centric and authoritarian politician,” who has pushed all potential rivals out of the BJP. His rise as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP was resisted by parts of the BJP old guard – like 86 years old L. K. Advani – and “liberal” leadership within the BJP. But Modi and his team have more or less neutralised these voices, also with regard to Lok Sabha candidacies or even forced a well-known leader like former Foreign- and Finance-Minister Jaswant Singh to leave the party, after denying him a ticket in his home constituency Barmer, which has the size of Belgium, in Rajasthan.

Officials in Pakistan are hopeful that Modi will seize an opportunity to rebuild ties between India and Pakistan, because he is much less vulnerable to the charges of weakness that plagued Manmohan Singh. A former Congress cabinet minister has informally called Modi “anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan.” It has now to be seen, if Modi has truly changed with his propagating “good governance and development” or if old contours of the man, who presided over the bloody riots primarily against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, will reappear. It is also unclear how the BJP would conduct its foreign policy under Modi regime. Modi himself has a limited experience with the outside world, only leading business delegations to China and Japan.

Due to decades of animosity, the idea of peace and bilateral cooperation between both the countries sometimes seems as an idealistic fantasy. But the idea is not entirely out of place as there had been patchy periods of peace. But such brief intervals, rarer as they were, created only the illusion of progress where there was no substance and had dangerous pacifying effect on public conscious. It is believed that when bubble of the false peace gusts, not only it shatters the atmosphere of feel-good, but also it floods all positive moves for peace.

The relationship improved last time the BJP took power, in 1998, under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who rode a bus to Lahore during Sharif's previous stint in power to sign Lahore peace accord. The Lahore accord’s spirit was eroded by the Kargil conflict.

The Musharraf government also made efforts to rebuild the links with India; the non-official channels of communications between the two sides became active. Musharraf paid visits to India which failed to settle the key issues but it further opened up avenues for initiatives. His early years saw positive trans-border engagements among bureaucrats, retired military officials, trade representatives, media groups bilateral interactions and civil society exchanges. The overall atmosphere dramatically improved which proved helpful for the two sides to launch the composite dialogue after the Islamabad summit on the side lines of the SAARC moot in 2004. The joint statements issued after the meeting not only mentioned Kashmir but the obligation to tackle terrorism, again a clear sign of accommodating each other. Contrary to past bad habits when each and every move was trumpeted as victory, this time each side was found praising the other for flexibility.

On November 26, 2008, a group of militants concurrently attacked multiple targets in Mumbai, killing around 183 people, including nine terrorists and 22 foreign citizens, while some further 327 people received injuries. These attacks in Mumbai served as a nail in the coffin as India alleged Pakistan for it. Such was the rage in India that suggestions of military action against Pakistan were floated, while the rational expressions advised concealed action as against any hasty and rash decisions that could potentially lead to unprecedented catastrophic consequences. Option of a military strike was ruled out by the Indian government, but on December 16, 2008, despite Pakistan’s assurances to fully cooperate to uncover the offenders of this crime, the then Indian Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, announced that the Composite Dialogue process with Pakistan was to be put on hold until credible action was taken against those responsible for the Mumbai carnage.

Following the 2009 Lok Sabha elections that saw the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coming back to power, there were high hopes that India would show some flexibility towards Pakistan. These hopes saw some light when on July 16, 2009; Prime Minister Gillani met with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh in the Egyptian city of Sharm-al-Sheikh on the side-lines of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. The meeting concluded with the issuance of a joint statement in which both countries agreed to de-link action on terrorism and the composite dialogue process.

This joint statement aroused a strong response in India as Mr. Singh had to face severe denigration not only from opposition parties but also from coalition partners and some members of the congress party. Dubbing the statement ‘surrender by India’, Opposition parties, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made such hue and cry that Manmohan Singh was forced to backtrack from the commitment made in Sharm-el-Sheikh. The very next day, in an effort to clarify his position, Mr. Manmohan said that de-linking dialogue and action on terrorism only served to strengthen India‟s commitment that a meaningful process of engagement cannot move forward unless Pakistan takes measures to control terrorism. Similarly, a reference to Balochistan in the joint statement was also criticised in India as it was perceived an acknowledgement of its suggested role in the Pakistani province.

The following months saw growing tensions as Pakistan witnessed a tirade of allegations from India such as “forty-two terrorist camps are operating in Pakistan”, “rise in infiltration to India”, “exporting terrorism and using it as state policy to further its strategic goals” and “targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan”. Renewed incidents of firing both at the line of control (LoC) across Kashmir and the international border also served to intensify tensions.

The then Indian Chief of the Army Staff, General Deepak Kapoor, also announced his provoking ‘Cold Start’ strategy which aimed at quick mobilisation of troops in order to launch a retaliatory conventional strike against Pakistan. However, on Pakistan’s repeated protests, the United States took up the issue with India, and in September 2010, the new Indian army chief denied the existence of any such policy and insisted that this term was fabricated by the think tanks.

Behind-the-scenes the U.S. played his role to bring India and Pakistan to the negotiating table as U.S. was concerned that Pakistan-India tensions could derail its strategy to stabilise Afghanistan. American officials had been vigorously pressing for an easing of tensions and revival of dialogue between India and Pakistan so that Pakistan could focus more on fighting militancy on its western border. Without clarifying the scope of the proposed discussions, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupuma Rao invited her Pakistani counterpart for talks to New Delhi. Welcoming the move, Pakistan accepted the offer and a delegation went to New Delhi in February 2010. During the meeting, besides making certain other demands, India handed over three dossiers to Pakistan asking that thirty-three individuals, including two serving Pakistan army officers, as well as Indian fugitives allegedly involved in terror acts, be handed over to India. Repeated references to terrorism forced the Pakistani foreign secretary to remind India that Pakistan had witnessed “hundreds of Mumbais” taking the lives of 5,366 civilians in 3,043 terror attacks since 2008 and, therefore, was not ignorant of the dangers of terrorism.

During March 2010, India repeatedly expressed its desire to conduct a second round of foreign secretary-level talks in Islamabad. However, Pakistan made it clear that it was not interested in a mere photo-shoot and wanted result-oriented talks about all outstanding issues.

The bilateral private engagements continued during the following years and helped to cool down the tempers. On March 29, 2011 Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani visited Mohali to watch India-Pakistan cricket world cup 2011 semi-final along with India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The two leaders met over dinner, expressed commitment for peace and prosperity. In April, 2012 President Asif Ali Zardari became first Pakistani head of state to visit India in seven years. He had luncheon meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi before praying at Ajmer Sharif shrine. The two leaders focused on moves to liberalise trade and boost confidence by anti-terror cooperation. On March 9, 2013 Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf attended a lunch hosted by India External Affairs minister Salman Khurshid before he visited the Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti's shrine in Ajmer. No bilateral issues discussed.

Though the resumption of dialogue has largely been urged in both the countries, it should also be recognised that no breakthrough is expected. Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley has already signalled that the gathering of these foreign leaders should not be seen through the “prism of bilateral issues”. “The invitation to all leaders of SAARC nations to be present at the ceremony is to showcase Indian democracy and its strength to the world at large. It is a democracy event. It should not be viewed through the prism of bilateral issues between countries’’.

Modi said last year in his first major speech as a prime ministerial candidate. “Bombs, guns and pistols have failed to do any good for the people of Pakistan … if India or Pakistan has to fight a war, it should be a war on poverty, illiteracy and superstition.” As reported by Reuters an anonymous Pakistani information ministry official has rightly said: "We still have to gauge what Modi's government's stand is on the many issues that remain unresolved between Pakistan and India. The inaugural speech will hopefully set the tone of relations and we can take it from there."

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