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Not so fast

Even before Nawaz Sharif’s formal swearing in as prime minister, the Manmohan Singh government has launched a major diplomatic initiative to kick-start a high-level diplomatic dialogue with the incoming government of Pakistan.

Manmohan was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Nawaz on his election victory. In an effusively warm message addressed to “Dear Mian Sahib”, the Indian prime minister welcomed Nawaz’s “publicly articulated commitment to a relationship between India and Pakistan that is defined by peace, friendship and cooperation” and said he looked forward to working with the Nawaz government “to chart a new course and pursue a new destiny in the relations between our countries”. The Indian prime minister also invited Nawaz to visit India at a mutually convenient time.

While election results were still coming in, Manmohan followed up this message with a telephone call to Nawaz the same day. In Nawaz’s words, the two leaders had “long discussions” and extended invitations to visit each other’s country. Nawaz said later he would be pleased if Manmohan attended his inauguration. There are now reports that the Indian prime minister will send a representative to attend the swearing-in ceremony on June 6.

How serious and how eager the Indian government is in pursuing a diplomatic opening with Nawaz became clear two weeks later when Manmohan took the uncommon step of despatching a special envoy – Satish Lambah – to meet Nawaz at Lahore without even waiting for his formal inauguration. Equally unusual, Nawaz agreed to meet him without first having received an official briefing on the current state of Pakistan-India relations from the foreign ministry or the military.

Manmohan’s reasons for the extraordinary speed with which he is courting Nawaz are not difficult to guess. The Indian prime minister is evidently keen that Nawaz should recommit himself to the promises he made ahead of his election victory on a deeper relationship with India, before he comes under the ‘baleful’ influence of the Pakistani ‘establishment.’

As Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said to reporters last Wednesday, the Indian government expected that upon assuming office Nawaz would work towards converting the many positive signals he gave during the election campaign into reality.

The problem is that the ‘positive signals’ that have pleased Delhi mightily have at the same time aroused many misgivings in Pakistan, raising further doubts about the soundness of Nawaz’s judgement on vital strategic issues. As a successful industrialist with diverse business interests, Nawaz still seems to view ties with India primarily through a commercial prism, rather than from the perspective of a statesman seeking to chart Pakistan’s role in the region and the world.

Nawaz’s flawed judgement on the correct approach for normalising Pakistan’s relations with India is evident in the PML-N’s election manifesto and in Nawaz’s public statements, both recent, such as an interview with an Indian TV channel a week before the election, and not so recent, like a famous speech he delivered to Safma in August 2011. In the latter, he came close to negating the basis of Pakistani nationhood by asserting that the people of Pakistan and India had the same culture and heritage, ate the same food, spoke more or less the same language, and shared the same way of life.

Like Nawaz’s Safma speech, his recurring and often groundless attacks on the Pakistani ‘establishment’, his criticism of the Kargil operation – for which, incidentally, Nawaz bears as much blame as Musharraf – and his support for opening trade with India and giving it transit facilities through Pakistani territory to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran, have done a lot to endear him to the Indians but have left many Pakistanis bewildered. He and his party have also failed to articulate a coherent and convincing concept of the future direction of Pakistan-India relations.

The Indians, on the other hand, are quite clear what their aims and priorities are. Reports in the Indian media suggest that a major purpose of sending Lambah as special envoy was to “nudge” Nawaz to restart the backchannel diplomacy on a Kashmir settlement which took place between 2004 and 2007 during the Musharraf dictatorship. During these contacts, the two sides came close to drafting a deal based on a de facto division of the state along the Line of Control and a renunciation by Pakistan of its demand for the right of self-determination for the Kashmiris in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions.

Lambah reportedly briefed Nawaz about the progress he and his Pakistani counterpart had made in the backchannel talks and conveyed Manmohan’s wish for a resumption of these negotiations. While Sharif did not make any specific commitment to restart these talks, the Indians are quite hopeful. India’s optimism stems from the fact that Nawaz has made “picking up the threads from where we left in 1999” central to his policy towards India.

At a meeting with the press on May 13, Nawaz described it as “the road map that I have for improvement of relations between Pakistan and India.” The Indians have also been encouraged by the fact that, instead of dissociating himself from the Kashmir policy of his former nemesis, Nawaz claimed during his meeting with Lambah that informal negotiations on Kashmir initiated after the Lahore Summit of 1999 had served as the precursor to Musharraf’s backchannel diplomacy.

Despite Nawaz’s keenness to resume the process, it is clear that the PML-N has done very little homework on what it hopes to achieve through these talks. Nawaz’s trademark woolly thinking is reflected in the reply he gave to a question on Kashmir in his recent interview with an Indian TV channel. “I think that [the] backchannel [agreed with Vajpayee] was very useful,” Nawaz said profoundly, “I used to meet my man once a week and I was told that the Indian prime minister would meet his man once a week and those two people were meeting very frequently with each other. So that was working.”

In fact, only three rounds of these talks were held in March and April 1999 before Kargil interrupted the process. For Nawaz to claim that the talks were “working” betrays either a very faulty memory or, worse, a failure to grasp the realities of the issue.

The same confusion is evident in the position taken on Kashmir by most of our other political parties. They similarly favour negotiations with India for a settlement on Kashmir but none of them has bothered to think the matter through. If they did, they would reach the conclusion that any solution that can realistically be achieved through negotiations under the present circumstances would fall far short of the Kashmiri aspirations for self-determination.

It would, therefore, be far more preferable to continue the status quo in which Pakistan maintains its position based on the UN Security Council resolutions and intensifies its diplomatic efforts to create political space for the Kashmiris to continue their peaceful struggle for azadi (freedom).

Whatever the outcome of resumed backchannel talks between Pakistan and India on Kashmir might be, the very resumption of the dialogue after a six-year break will be used by Delhi in its effort to work out a negotiated agreement with Kashmiri political parties on greater ‘autonomy’ for Occupied Kashmir and to win their participation in state elections scheduled for 2014. It is, therefore, quite understandable why the Manmohan Singh government has reacted so warmly to Nawaz’s election victory.

For Pakistan, on the other hand, the gains from a revival of the backchannel are very dubious. There is certainly no reason for undue haste. By offering in 2004 to set aside the UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir, Musharraf broke a 56-year-old national consensus on the issue. Nawaz now faces a choice between following in the footsteps of the ousted military dictator and restoring that consensus. It is to be hoped that he will choose the latter option.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.

Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

Asif Ezdi, "Not so fast," The News. 2013-06-03.
Keywords: Political science , Political history , Political process , Political issues , Political relations , Pakistan foreign relations-India , Government-Pakistan , Armed forces , Electronic media , Diplomacy , PM Manmohan , Nawaz Sharif , Salman Khurshid , Gen Musharraf , Pakistan , Kashmir , Afghanistan , Kargil , India , PMLN , TV