The change of government in Pakistan after the exit of warmonger Imran Khan and his likely replacement by hardline realist Shehbaz Sharif could provide a small window of opportunity for the leaders of India and Pakistan to restore their near-frozen bilateral relations, according to experts.
As the younger brother of former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz has earned a reputation over the years as a no-nonsense person who doesn’t make bones while carrying out arduous tasks.
His realism is often resentful of friends and foes alike. When asked a few days ago by a Geo News TV presenter about the terms of US ties under his watch, Shehbaz replied, “Beggars can’t choose” – a remark instantly compared by his opponents to Khan’s notion of “honor in foreign policy”.
A man who can work the aisles of parliament as well as the powerful establishment with equal ease, can Shehbaz’s rise to power help unravel the Indo-Pak puzzle?
Samiullah Khan, a Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) lawmaker and close aide to Shehbaz, told PTI that his leader would come up with a new policy for India.
“Pakistan under Shehbaz will come up with a new policy towards India. Basically, Imran Khan’s regime had no or weak policy towards India, which enabled India to revoke the special status of the Kashmir and Khan could only watch helplessly,” he said.
Leading political analyst Dr Hassan Askari said that first Pakistan and India should start the dialogue which was suspended by India in 2014 as no progress is possible unless they don’t start talking.
“Since India suspended the talks, the responsibility for its revival also lies with India. No government in Pakistan has stood in the way of a meaningful dialogue,” he said.
When Khan came to power in 2018, he promised to rebuild ties with India, but soon the two countries came to blows following the Pulwama terror attack. Although the storm has passed, it has left behind jarring gaps in relationships with no possibility of quick repair.
The revocation of Kashmir’s special status has further alienated both sides. Time passed with little effort on either side to unfreeze the icy ties until a motion of no confidence from the common opposition changed the situation.
Fortunately, India only briefly appeared in the vitriolic atmosphere that led to Khan’s elimination. Instead, the Indian part was assigned to the United States, which emerged as the scapegoat following a controversy over the “letters”.
The change could be an opportunity to restore ties between Islamabad and New Delhi, as Shehbaz said Khan had hurt Pakistan’s foreign policy.
The main reason for hope is that the new Prime Minister should be seen as a continuation of Nawaz Sharif who still makes all the political decisions of PML-N, and whose relationship chemistry with Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not a secret.
There are also potential obstacles for Shehbaz and first of all he would be wary of being called as another ‘Modi ka yaar’ (friend of Modi).
Shehbaz could hold the reins for a brief period as several opposition leaders have indicated that new elections will be held soon after the enactment of necessary reforms, especially those related to the elections.
Any slack on India in this short period would be castigated by Khan as treason.
But the real stumbling block is the ‘K’ word and it would be difficult for a ruler in Islamabad to offer anything in the absence of India showing flexibility on Kashmir.
In fact, Shehbaz is said to be under pressure to match Khan’s speech on Kashmir.
Uzma Bokhari, a spokeswoman for PML-N, said that after coming to power, Shehbaz will push India to restore the special status of Kashmiris.
“Unlike Khan, India will talk to the serious political leaders of Pakistan led by Shehbaz and listen to our concerns,” she said.
Samiullah Khan said the PTI government had failed to pressure India through the international community to restore Kashmir’s special status.
“Imran is even so confused that he praises India’s foreign policy as ‘independent’ and indirectly criticizes Pakistan’s,” he said, adding that Shehbaz would propose a strong and pragmatic policy towards Pakistan’s neighbors, whose ‘India.
Askari said only limited space was available for new leaders in Islamabad, adding that India should take the lead and drop a hint to engage Pakistan.
“There is no indication at this time whether there will be an impact of a change of government on relations between the two countries. First, there should be an indication of India, which I don’t see,” he said.
But he does not rule out an improvement in the years to come. “In the long term, both parties can engage and relaunch dialogue,” he said, adding that real change could come after new elections, which are expected before the end of this year.
However, Bokhari is more optimistic about ties with India for historical reasons. “It was our Supreme Leader Nawaz Sharif on whose invitation Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee had come to Lahore and peace efforts were initiated between the two great rivals.”
Tense ties were further tightened after Indian warplanes shelled a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp in the heart of Pakistan on February 26, 2019 in response to the Pulwama terror attack in which 40 CRPF jawans were killed.
Relations deteriorated after India announced the withdrawal of special powers from Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019.
India has repeatedly told Pakistan that Jammu and Kashmir “was, is and will forever remain” an integral part of the country. (With contributions from PTI)