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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Could Shehbaz Sharif normalize ties with India?

  • Indian PM Narendra Modi has congratulated Shehbaz Sharif on becoming the head of Pakistan's government, prompting hopes for a diplomatic thaw
  • But Sharif would need to face massive obstacles in reaching out to New Delhi
Update : 16 Mar 2024, 03:00 PM

Pakistan has formed a new government led by Shehbaz Sharif — and the message sent to Sharif by India's Narendra Modi, though brief and simple, felt like a sign of changing times after years of strained ties and occasional cross-border violence.

"Congratulations to [Shehbaz Sharif] on being sworn in as the Prime Minister of Pakistan," Modi wrote on X. Sharif responded days later with an equally curt post, thanking Modi for his "felicitations."

But this was enough to get people talking, including diplomats beyond the borders of the two South Asian nations. Following Modi's message, the US said it would "welcome productive and peaceful talks between India and Pakistan."

The exchange comes after Shehbaz Sharif's brother, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, also made conciliatory gestures in recent months. Some circles are already speculating if the new Pakistani prime minister is preparing steps to normalize diplomatic ties with New Delhi.

Reliance on the army

Skeptics point to Pakistan's military and the power they wield over the country's foreign policy. Top military leaders traditionally oppose rapprochements with India and the military's current stance does not give much hope. And with Shehbaz Sharif heavily reliant on the army to stay in power following a controversial election, the new head of government is unlikely to do anything that would go against their wishes.

Karachi-based analyst Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan believes that Shehbaz Sharif would simply not dare upset his military backers.

"He has even handed over internal policy to the military, then how can he take any initiative on foreign affairs front?" he told DW.

But Dr Noor Fatima, an academic at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, is more optimistic. She told DW that Sharif can try holding out an olive branch to India by involving the military into the effort.

"So, if he can take the army into confidence, he can take steps to normalize ties, otherwise it is difficult," she said.

Can Shehbaz Sharif replicate his brother's policy?

Some invoke the PM's older brother Nawaz Sharif, who was seen as very assertive during his own time in office. Nawaz Sharif defied the military by having then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpaee's visit to Pakistan in 1999 just one of his attempts to normalize ties with Pakistan's archrival. He again stunned the military generals by welcoming Narendra Modi to the wedding of his granddaughter in late 2015.

But while Nawaz made his reputation by being defiant and standing up for civilian supremacy in politics, his younger brother Shehbaz is seen as mild, and any attempt to follow in Nawaz's footsteps would be an even harder battle. Moreover, the chasm between the two sides has arguably grown wider since Nawaz's day.

Retired Pakistan diplomat Maleeha Lodhi told DW that India was to blame for strained ties, especially due to New Delhi's "refusal to discuss Kashmir" after making unilateral changes in the region.

While it was true that some of the previous Pakistani governments were "more amenable to engage with India," this was "always reciprocal" at the time.

"Today there are many obstacles to normalizing ties with Delhi, not easy to overcome," she said.

Another line of attack for Imran Khan

Even if Sharif managed to get the military onboard, he would still need to contend with Pakistan's public opinion.

When Nawaz Sharif tried to reach out to India between 2013 and 2017, he was dubbed as traitor by former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Right-wing parties also oppose such normalization, including the party of former prime minister Imran Khan.

The former cricket star accuses Shehbaz of stealing his PTI party mandate through massive vote rigging in the February elections. Khan and his allies are likely to call out Sharif if he took reconciliatory steps towards New Delhi and accuse him of "selling out" Pakistan's interests in the Kashmir dispute, according to former Pakistani ambassador Husain Haqqani.

"Pakistan would have to acknowledge India's concerns over jihadi terrorism and India might have to offer the Shahbaz Sharif government a face saver," Haqqani, currently a scholar at Washington DC's Hudson Institute, told DW.

Can US open door for talks?

Looking outside Pakistan, it seems that most major powers want India and Pakistan to normalize relations, Haqqani said. And some of them, like the US and the Arab Gulf countries, wield immense influence that could be used to pressure the Pakistani government. Specifically, the South Asian country is heavily reliant on the remittances sent by Pakistani laborers working in the Gulf and on international monetary institutions that tend to help states friendly to the US and the West.

If the US put pressure on the army, it could pave way for opening some sorts of talks, Haqqani told DW.

"In that situation Shehbaz could be emboldened and might take initiative to resume some sort of talks with India," he said.

Michael Kugelman, Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, believes that hopes for reconciliation with India should be kept low. He says that Shehbaz Sharif would take a massive risk with a friendly signal towards New Delhi, even if he somehow managed to overcome all obstacles inside his own country.

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