Can Modi-Sharif write a new chapter in Indo-Pak ties?

by Sushmita

In an unprecedented move Narendra Modi sent an invitation to all heads of the government of SAARC countries to be a part of his swearing-in ceremony as the Prime Minister of India. In terms of cross-border ties this was a master-stroke by him, even before taking oath as the PM—an effort which could possibly boost not only political but also business ties with Pakistan.

As a result of Modi`s invitation, for the first time ever, a Prime Minister of Pakistan attended the swearing-in ceremony of his Indian counterpart.

After building suspense for over two days, Nawaz Sharif accepted Modi`s invitation and landed in New Delhi to attend the glittering ceremony at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Inspite of reluctance from the hardliners and his own military, he was keen to visit India. It was a double-edged sword for Sharif – turning down the invitation would have sent wrong signals to India, while accepting it meant disappointing few people in his nation.

Narendra Modi swept the 2014 General Elections in style. The `Modi wave` or the `Modi Tsunami` helped the BJP bag 282 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats, getting a majority on its own. On the other hand the Congress was decimated ending up with a tally of 44 seats – its worst performance ever. When Modi called on President Pranab Mukherjee at the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the first time after being elected as the BJP`s Parliamentary Party leader, he discussed the subject of inviting the heads of SAARC countries for his oath-taking ceremony.

Mukherjee reportedly endorsed Modi’s plan, thus signalling warmth and understanding of sorts between the man of the moment and the President. Thus, even before Modi had taken over the highest office in the country he had pulled off a huge diplomatic coup sending out the message that he was all for regional cooperation and boosting ties with India`s neighbours including Pakistan.

Even though everyone expected Modi to be a hardliner on national security issues, his unexpected move to invite leaders of SAARC countries, including Sharif, has been hailed as a bold initiative both in India and Pakistan.

Bilateral ties with Pakistan suffered a major setback in the wake of 2008 Mumbai attacks. However, inspite of India being sure of complicity of ISI in the attacks which killed more than 150 people, former PM Manmohan Singh was always keen to improve ties with its neighbour. But cross-border terrorism, numerous LoC violations and terror attacks on Indian soil made it virtually impossible for India to move forward with Pakistan.

So, when Modi invited Sharif for his coronation, most expected it to be a mere photo opportunity where no niggling issues would be discussed, but the move would only be a first step in thawing the cold vibes between the South Asian neighbours. But in another surprise, the new PM of India minced no words when he met his Pakistani counterpart on May 27, in a first bilateral meeting with him.

On his first day in office, Modi told Sharif, amongst other things, that ties between the two countries could only move forward if Pakistan clamped down on terror emanating from its soil and if trial in 26/11 case was fast-tracked. The talks were later described by the Indian officials as “good, substantive and constructive”.

Both the Prime Ministers discussed at length normalisation of trade relations between the two countries and seemed to be confident of moving forward. Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh confirmed that India was looking to open up Wagah-Atari border for full trade. “The respective foreign secretaries of both the countries will keep in touch and will also try to find a viable solution for Kashmir,” Singh said.

Before leaving India, Sharif too told the press that since both countries had elected their respective governments with a clear mandate hoping for an economic revival and on agenda of growth and development, it was imperative that that aggression be left behind and peace and security in the region given utmost importance. Giving a clear indication of a new beginning with India, Sharif said ‘let us change confrontation into cooperation.’

He said – “We owe our people to overcome a mistrust and enmity. PM Modi reciprocated my sentiments. He stated it was incumbent on both of us to work together for the common objective – peace and development. Let us carry forward our bilateral agenda.”

The meeting of the SAARC countries that was put together for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony brought not only the memories of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his historic Lahore bus journey, but also the failed Agra summit. Though it is too early to comment but Modi did take the first step towards being the statesman that Vajpayee was. Modi realises that India will not be taken seriously at the world stage as long as it cannot solve its pending problems with its neighbouring countries. And he also realises that right kind of diplomacy can result in a positive atmosphere and create peace in the volatile South Asian region.

India has taken the first step to break the ice and now the ball lies in Pakistan’s court. While it seems that Sharif does want peace and cooperation with India – he had said more than once during his election campaign last year that he wanted to mend relations with its neighbour as it was beneficial to both of them – questions do remain about his ability to deliver or rather the freedom that he will be given to deliver.

It would be interesting to see how Sharif handles the Pakistani Army and the hard-liners who are said to be against peaceful relations with India. Can he stop cross border terrorism and can he prevent his country from being a terror hotbed is something that India will keenly follow in the days to come. Although it would be a tough act to implement, Sharif after a positive visit to India must walk the talk. He probably also understands that Pakistan is in economic doldrums and improving its relations with India would also mean economic rehabilitation for his country.

On the Indian side, Narendra Modi knows very well that the relationship with Pakistan is not just tricky but vital to domestic politics. He knows that one act of terror from Pakistan and his plans of boosting economic ties with them would be dented. Any kind of conflict hampers economic growth, which India requires at this time.

But for now, with an out-of-the box beginning in reaching out to Pakistan, Modi has confounded his critics and defied stereotypes. This beginning may result in peace, tranquillity and economic stability in the region but the pertinent question is if this new bonhomie will lead to stronger Indo-Pak ties and can the two countries leave the baggage of past behind and move forward.

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