New Delhi: Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has finally concluded the extensive consultations at home and decided to accept Prime Minister designate Narendra Modi’s invitation to attend his oath taking ceremony here on Monday. Sharif’s advisor on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz will accompany him. Both Modi and Sharif will also have a bilateral meeting the next day.
The decision has come after extensive discussions, with the Pakistan PM getting the green signal from his Foreign Office, followed by endorsements from senior Opposition leaders including the Pakistan Peoples Party. Media reports seemed to suggest that the Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif was being more cautious than others, but clearly the decision taken just a day before the visit suggests that his fears too were allayed.
Modi and Sharif will have a short bilateral meeting on Tuesday, as indeed will then the newly sworn in Indian Prime Minister will have with all the visiting Saarc heads of government and state. The only one missing will be Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as she is on a scheduled visit to Japan, but she will be represented by the Speaker of her Parliament. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was amongst the first to accept the invitation extended by Modi, in a major move to all Saarc leaders, will be the only one attending amidst controversy with all the political parties in Tamil Nadu—including the ruling AIADMK as well as allies of the BJP in the state—registering strong protest.
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Sharif, by accepting the invitation, has helped open the doors for a dialogue. Pakistan has been particularly worried about the course India Pakistan relations will take after the BJP and Modi came into power with a resounding mandate, particularly with unchallenged comments from different leaders suggesting that those who do not vote for Modi be packed off to the neighbouring country. Interestingly the government had been keeping a close watch on the electoral campaign here, with worry being registered about the not very favourable references to Pakistan towards the end of the campaign by BJP and like minded party leaders.
Memories of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s grand visit to Lahore were invoked in circles in both India and Pakistan, when while he was being greeted by Sharif who was the Prime Minister then, the Army chief of Pakistan at that time General Pervez Musharraf was executing the Kargil operation. Islamabad, and the Pakistan army, it is learnt, were very keen to ensure that Sharif’s visit to India did not result in any major controversy generated by statements from senior members of the ruling party in Delhi that could place him in an awkward position at home. Some level of assurances, it is learnt, have been made to ensure that the visit passes well and indeed opens some of the doors that have been closed rather effectively for ten years now.
The Pakistan strategic establishment has been of the view for long that a BJP government in Delhi, and the military in Pakistan can take the two countries towards peace. Political leaders in Pakistan, including former foreign minister Khurshed Mahmud Kasuri, are never tired to pointing out how close both countries had come to reaching a solution on the vexed issues of Siachen, Sir Creek and even to some extent Kashmir under the governments of Vajpayee in Delhi and Musharraf in Islamabad. Although the Army is not in direct control in Pakistan now, sources pointed towards the close relationship between the civilian and military Sharif’s maintaining that the two were on the same page on many issues of strategic import.
At a recent high level meeting, after Modi emerged victorious from the polls, convened by Prime Minister Sharif and attended by Paikistan's Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif amongst other top ministers and officers, the situation on the western border was reviewed in the light of the BJP government assuming power in Delhi. Media reports in Pakistan suggested that the meeting agreed that the western border with India could become active as well, and hence emphasised the need for negotiating peace on both fronts as a serious strategic goal.
Sharif’s visit is clearly to ensure that the doors are opened for a dialogue and as his advisor Tariq Azim was quoted as saying to an Indian television channel, he was hopeful that the bilateral meeting would “begin something we can follow up on later.” He felt it was a “good beginning for things to come.”
Modi has the mandate and the support to move ahead on negotiating peace with Pakistan, although the BJP is being cited as the primary cause by the Congress leaders even today for their inability to move ahead on this front. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who established a record of sorts by being ever willing, through the ten years, to visit Pakistan backed off each and every time the issue came up and generated passionate opposition from the BJP in the Opposition. Now Modi has effectively, for the purpose of Sharif’s visit at least, ignored the murmurings in the party with the BJP’s communal propaganda on “biryani” seeking to link the Indian Muslim with Pakistan being pushed to the back burner.
This visit could be a major opportunity to kick start the peace talks, and take the process of normalcy forward. However, at the moment no one is willing to hazard a guess on this—not even the BJP leadership—with all cautioning that in the complex India_Pakistan relations it should all be taken and viewed ‘as one step at a time.’
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