Gifting mangoes to Modi, Sharif awaits fresh talks

KARACHI: In the run-up to the annual general assembly of United Nations slated this month, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has sent a box of mangoes to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, signaling a renewed interest in forging a lasting friendship. The gesture comes close on the heels of a massive political crisis which Sharif has dramatically survived.

The move comes right before both leaders are scheduled to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where they may possibly hold talks on the side.

The move, if the media reports are true, is part of Nawaz’s well-intentioned, if diminutive attempts at better relations with Pakistan’s eastern neighbor since his election last year.

Despite better relations being one of Nawaz’s signature campaign promises in the run-up to the elections, Nawaz has been unable to implement policy in this regard, given the opposition from many within the establishment, fast-losing legitimacy within the Opposition given the recent protests in Islamabad, and hostile moves from India itself, making any moves towards normalization hardly conducive.

Both domestic and diplomatic issues have played their part. Nawaz had a strong mandate to implement his campaign promises when he was elected, winning a majority in Parliament. Still, his desire to improve economic relations with India stalled as his government dilly-dallied on granting India the Most Favoured Nation status, even after it was watered down and named Non-Discriminatory Market Access to sound more benign. The Indian government, which granted Pakistan the status in 1996, was unconvinced that Pakistan was committed to normalization.

At the same time, India was going through its own election season, and the then ruling Congress government hardly had the political capital to pursue talks when it was facing widespread unpopularity and electoral defeat.

Modi, leader of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, seemed less devoted to better relations with Pakistan than his predecessor Manmohan Singh. It also did not help that a ceasefire along the Line of Control, in place for almost a decade, was deteriorating as reports of shelling, kidnapping – even beheadings – were coming from both sides.

Given the fear that Pakistanis had over Modi’s election, that he invited Nawaz for his inauguration was a breakthrough. The neighbors were optimistic as both leaders exchanged gifts – saris and shawls for each other’s mothers – and a promise of better relations. But relations headed south quickly after that, as Nawaz became more embattled at home, and Modi began to implement a more hostile – ‘muscular’ as he put it — foreign policy.

During this time, the cross-border fire began to extend beyond the Line of Control to the heavily militarised north Punjab frontier, with reports of civilians being killed and evacuated. While the ceremonial distribution of sweets, and photo-ops at Wagah continued, cross-border exchanges became increasingly violent. Last month, Modi – in Kargil of all places – accused Pakistan of waging a ‘proxy war of terrorism’ against India. He also cancelled the secretary-level talks that were scheduled for August 25 because Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit met with the All Parties Hurriyet Conference.

Given the sit-in protests that have paralysed Islamabad and the government since August 14, Nawaz has been able to do little about anything else but attempt to contain the crisis, losing precious political capital in the process.

Still, Nawaz’s latest move is possibly an indication of a persistent desire from Pakistan’s civilian government to improve relations. Later this month, both leaders are scheduled to attend the UN General Assembly in New York. The move may possibly be an indication of Pakistan’s willingness to meet on the sidelines at the conference. In a press briefing by Pakistan’s Foreign Office, spokesperson Tasnim Aslam said that there was no confirmation of a meeting yet.

Modi just ended a much-publicised visit to Japan, seeking to strengthen security and economic ties with Prime Minister Abe’s government. His government has thus far not reciprocated Nawaz’s eagerness to pursue talks, despite the optimistic signals.

It remains to be seen if the meeting, or indeed the mangoes in return, are forthcoming.

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