Elusive Engagement

A month since assuming office, Shahbaz Sharif led coalition government in Pakistan has made no outreach to New Delhi as was expected. And one can understand it. Pakistan is too much hemmed in by internal turmoil and the economic problems that it is unlikely that Sharif would find time or in his interest to seek to rebuild relationship with India. So, there is apparently not much in store on this front. The new government in Pakistan has just sixteen months before the national elections are called in the country. That is if no early elections are held as is signaled by Pakistan’s Army and even sought by the party of Maulana Fazlul Rehman.

But despite this, the exchange of letters between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sharif had created a faint hope of some engagement. In his speech to Pakistan National Assembly Sharif asked PM Modi to come forward and address “the Kashmir issue” so that the two countries could concentrate on tackling poverty and unemployment. Sharif also attacked his predecessor Imran Khan for not making “serious and diplomatic efforts” when India abrogated Article 370 in August 2019.

That said, the Sharif family is generally seen as friendly towards India and there is hope that the new Pakistan prime minister will take steps to restore some kind of a relationship with India. When PM Modi was sworn in 2014, Nawaz Sharif was among the invited regional leaders who had visited India for the ceremony. And later in 2015 Modi had made an impromptu visit to Lahore to attend the wedding of Sharif’s granddaughter. But the bonhomie between the two countries was cut short when the militants traced to Pakistan attacked an Army base in Pathankot. From thereon, the relationship went steadily downhill reaching its nadir when New Delhi abrogated Article 370 of constitution in August 2019.

The neighbors tried to pick up the pieces with the surprise re-affirmation of the 2003 ceasefire along the Line of Control in February 2021. Ever since, however, they have failed to build upon the truce and restore the dialogue process between them.

Would Modi-Sharif be able to pull it off? Chances don’t seem bright enough. This is despite the fact even Army chief General Bajwa is reportedly in favour of resuming dialogue with New Delhi. But inherent limitations of the new ruling arrangement will make it difficult to reach out to New Delhi and institute a process of dialogue. But here’s hoping that the two sides find a way out and engage sustainably and work towards a durable peace in South Asia.

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