In a sudden development, Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif dashed to New Delhi with a delegation on Monday to attend the oath-taking ceremony of his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, amidst uproar back home and in Pakistan administered Kashmir, commonly known as Azad Kashmir - the state which is the core dispute between the two countries.
This visit can be described as a “dramatic” but “bold move” by both prime ministers who are leading two nuclear arch rival states that fought four wars over the Kashmir dispute and are involved in a crazy arms race that threatened to turn into a nuclear clash.
No real peace breakthrough is expected in the first official visit to India by a Pakistani head of government or state in a decade. The previous was in 2005 by then General Pervez Musharraf and since that time bilateral relations hit their lowest ebb.
Islamist and secular shades of opinions
However, the intellectuals and diplomats representing the respective Islamist and secular shades of opinions have pinned mixed hopes on the visit. One thing looks certain: that Nawaz Sharif could succeed in breaking the psychological barrier that hindered the normalization of relations between the two arch rivals where right wing hardliners are in majority and hold sway over politics and foreign affairs.
Modi cleverly played several contradictory cards to pocket the support of the hardline Hindu extremist majority and the capitalist, corporate class of IndiaMansoor Jafar
Modi’s invitation was quite unexpected in view of his hawkish attitude towards Pakistan and his electoral win through a campaign during which he fanned widespread anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim sentiments. Equally unexpected was the acceptance by Nawaz Sharif within 48 hours, ignoring strong resistance by an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis, Kashmiris and even inside his own party, the Pakistan Muslim League.
Modi surprised his critics by inviting all the heads of SAARC countries, something unheard of in Indian history. Other SAARC heads have never been an issue, but the real significance was inviting Pakistani Prime Minister which created uproar even in India. Some analysts believed that inviting SAARC heads was a cover up to invite the Pakistani premier otherwise Hindu extremists would have been angered by Modi’s move.
On reaching Delhi, Nawaz Sharif told Indian media that he was there to add a new chapter in bilateral relations with a message of peace. He said he would like to resume the stalled peace process from where he and Vajpayee had left it 15 years ago. Sharif said: “he was not deterred by Hindu extremists.”
Indian and world media
Indian and world media are actively engaged in analyzing the repercussions of Modi’s initiative on regional peace. The majority of Indian media and intellectuals refrained from calling it a formal invitation, and termed Modi’s initiative as a wise and bold move through which he gave the message that he was not a leader of Gujarat state but was now the leader of India.
BBC termed Modi’s move as a “master stroke,” but the international media have ruled out pinning too much hope on a breakthrough with this meeting. Indian intellectuals and media say both PMs would not likely to discuss serious issues in the meeting, and it should be taken as just a beginning. Some Indian newspapers have stressed that the issue of Kashmir would not figure in the meeting. Indians say a breakthrough in bilateral relations could be expected only if Modi made a visit to Pakistan on Nawaz Sharif’s invitation after a proper agenda is set and ground preparation is organized via back channel diplomacy.
Enthusiasm has been growing in the Indian media about the possible outcome of the Modi-Nawaz meeting, while all world analysts are also focused on the high-profile encounter. The trouble-hit and divided Pakistani media is also giving it special coverage.
However, a section of the Indian media has warned Nawaz Sharif that if he mentions the disputed Kashmir state in his press conference, it would generate a negative response across India. Some Indian TV channels have been using the occasion to reiterate the allegations against Pakistan of overseeing terrorism in India. The widows of Indian soldiers killed in border skirmishes with the Pakistan army were also presented on screen with reports containing tough anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Particularly, the widow of a soldier who was beheaded allegedly by Kashmiri freedom fighters was also brought on screen.
Indian governments have taken a tough stance against Pakistan over the last two decades, especially after the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Delhi refused the proposals to invite Pakistani president Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. Zardari went to Ajmer on a private visit while Gilani visited Mohali to watch cricket world cup semi-final between Pakistan and India. But on both occasions, Delhi refrained from according them a warm welcome. Even former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh refused Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to attend his oath-taking ceremony, presumably fearing backlash by the BJP and other Hindu extremists.
Modi is known for taking surprise initiatives against his opponents. He overcame several political opponents in Gujarat during his chief ministership by throwing difficult challenges on them which they could not refuse for the fear losing popularity. It was only such subtle offensives which led him to successfully sideline several key contenders for the prime ministership in the BJP, including the top most candidate and his patron, LK Advani.
In his election campaign, Modi cleverly played several contradictory cards to pocket the support of the hardline Hindu extremist majority and the capitalist, corporate class of India. To shed the tag of pro-capitalist candidate, he also offered some promises to win support of poor and middle class Hindus. But the bottom line of his campaign was Pakistan bashing and he even promised to bring back underworld don Daud Ibrahim from Pakistan by a commando operation akin to the U.S. Navy SEALS capture of Osama bin Laden.
Modi’s electoral promises
Pakistanis are wondering if Nawaz Sharif has overlooked Modi’s electoral promises. Many in Pakistan feel that by inviting all SAARC heads, Modi has equated Pakistani prime minister with the leaders of small countries and Indian satellite states like Bhutan and Nepal. Some analysts even said Delhi was perhaps trying to establish an Indian Commonwealth. Some key leaders in the ruling PML-N opposed Nawaz Sharif’s visit in view of tense government-army relations because of the media crisis which started after the ban of popular TV channel, GEO. Such leaders were of the view that an eager visit to India would further damage relations.
Being a businessman and industrialist, Nawaz Sharif has always been a strong supporter of promoting Pak-India trade. Indian newspaper “The Hindu” claimed Nawaz and Modi would soon resume back channel diplomacy, and also claimed Nawaz Sharif wanted to forge a personal friendship with Modi which could withstand the acts of terrorism.
As a gesture of goodwill on the eve of Nawaz Sharif’s visit, Pakistan released over 150 Indian prisoners, mostly fishermen illegally fishing in Pakistani waters. Now, Pakistanis are waiting for an Indian response to all the friendly measures towards Delhi by Nawaz Sharif and how far the dream of Pak-India peace could be materialized.
Only time will tell whether the Nawaz-Modi meeting being held just one day before the 16th anniversary of Pakistan’s nuclear tests can prove to be historic, or remain just a routine diplomatic activity to be lost in the pages of history with a one line mention.
Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar