NEW DELHI: Shahbaz Sharif — now the premier of Pakistan — who 10 years ago had visited his paternal village of Jati Umra on the Indian side of Punjab, knows the importance of ties he enjoyed with India and the risks he may invite at the cost of any untoward incident that his predecessors ignored.
For the uninitiated, Sharif, whose father had migrated from Jati Umra, a town in Punjab’s Tarn Taran, had spent four days as a state guest of the then Akali Dal-BJP government under the Badal regime.
That is how Sharif, now the 23rd Prime Minister of Pakistan and the man who replaced Imran Khan, is known in North India, leaving many tongue-wagging — whether he will extend an olive branch to India amid the frosty ties between the two nations since the 2016 Pathankot terror attack.
For the moment, the thaw in ties has appeared in the form of Twitter exchanges between Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. What remains as a sign of a much calmer, if not immediately hawkish attitude of Sharif’s administration, is the last week’s prayers offered by Indian villagers when a no-confidence vote was held in favour of Sharif in Islamabad.
Sharif was elevated to the top post after a joint Opposition, led by him, successfully moved and won a no-confidence motion in its parliament that saw the Islamic country’s Supreme Court stepping in and the country narrowly escaping a showdown between the powerful military and the Imran Khan government.
“Congratulations to H. E. Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif on his election as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. India desires peace and stability in a region free of terror, so that we can focus on our development challenges and ensure the well-being and prosperity of our people,” PM Narendra Modi wrote on Twitter.
Congratulations to H. E. Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif on his election as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. India desires peace and stability in a region free of terror, so that we can focus on our development challenges and ensure the well-being and prosperity of our people.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) April 11, 2022
Thanking PM Modi for his wishes, the Pakistan PM said, “Pakistan desires peaceful & cooperative ties with India. Peaceful settlement of outstanding disputes including Jammu & Kashmir is indispensable. Pakistan’s sacrifices in fighting terrorism are well-known. Let’s secure peace and focus on the socio-economic development of our people.”
Thank you Premier Narendra Modi for felicitations. Pakistan desires peaceful & cooperative ties with India. Peaceful settlement of outstanding disputes including Jammu & Kashmir is indispensable. Pakistan's sacrifices in fighting terrorism are well-known. Let's secure peace and.. https://t.co/0M1wxhhvjV
— Shehbaz Sharif (@CMShehbaz) April 12, 2022
Besides, Sharif who has lived his life as a business tycoon has enjoyed good relations with businessmen in India such as steel magnate Sajjan Jindal. Sharif himself jointly owns steel conglomerate Ittefaq Group.
In 2014, Shahbaz’a elder brother and then prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi, giving hope of an improved relationship between the neighbours.
In 2015, PM Modi made a surprise stopover in Pakistan while returning from Afghanistan. The visit was widely expected to boost trade and ties. The expectations, however, were short-lived. The bilateral relations started deteriorating following terrorist attacks in Pathankot, Uri, and Gurdaspur.
The 2019 Pulwama attack was the last straw for India. The relations nosedived following India carried out an airstrike in Pakistan and scrapped the most favoured nation status to Pakistan in response to the killing of 40 CRPF personnel in Pulwama that was orchestrated by Pakistan.
After the abrogation of special status to Kashmir in August 2019, Pakistan expelled the Indian high commissioner and called back its envoy from Delhi as hostilities between the two nuclear-armed countries.
At present, the two countries don’t have any trade relations; they don’t play cricket. Instead, they hike their defence budgets to procure more arms for deterrence. Civilian airlines from India take a circuitous route to bypass Pakistani airlines. Pakistan loses millions in revenues but wins in ego war.
It remains to be seen if Shahbaz, who has employed several youths from Jatti Umra village in their Dubai factory and who is described as a business-oriented leader, can succeed in persuading the army to drop their anti-India rhetoric and the policy of exporting terrorism to India, which seems to be a precondition to resuming normal ties between the two countries, and something that his predecessors failed to accomplice.
Speaking to The New Indian, former Indian Ambassador to Pakistan G Parthasarathy said that bilateral trade “needs to be resumed before everything else”.
“Having known the younger Sharif when I was in Islamabad, I can say he is very business savvy. We have to wait to see whether he is willing to move further than predecessors in terms of trade,” he said.
If the business resumes, Sharif’s own country will benefit more than India does, experts believe.
Pakistan still has a poor healthcare system whereas India is known as a medical tourism destination in the region. Sharif can take advantage of the improved ties between the two, and seek more medical visas.
Days before Sharif’s victory, then PM Imran Khan eulogized India and its foreign policy which, he said, doesn’t bow to external pressures. Even General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistan Army chief, asserted, “Pakistan will benefit if we improve ties with India.”
Parthasarathy, however, said, “We tried it briefly and annealed it… I don’t’ think it is going to be on the schedule immediately…”
On Pakistan losing millions in revenues for not allowing the civilian aircraft via Pakistan, the former envoy said, “They are quite capable of cutting the nose to spite the face.”
Munir Ahmed, an Islamabad-based political analyst, said, “There seems to be reluctance. The Pakistani public is not in favour of business and relations with India. He will try to pitch his ideas to the public and parliamentarians and security agencies for clearing such things. Let’s see how much time he has – maybe till July or maximum till December.”
The situation will also depend on the confidence-building measures by PM Modi, he added.
To improve bilateral relations, India and Pakistan need to come to a common ground on the issue of Kashmir. While the Modi government has time and again made it clear that Kashmir is an integral part of India and any possible talks with Pakistan would not include this topic. On the other hand, the Islamic nation has also been consistent in calling for a dialogue on the matter.
Albeit mounting challenges, the Pakistani analyst was hopeful that Shahbaz will succeed in restoring “good and cordial relations with India”.
As Shahbaz adjusts himself in the power corridors of Islamabad and prepares for the elections staring at him, Delhi will wait and closely watch over his moves.