The recent remarks by Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan's main opposition party, show that there are politicians in that country prepared to stand up against the populist view of India as dushman humsaya or the “enemy neighbour.” It would have been the easier political course for Mr. Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League(N), to fall in line with this idée fixe, born out of decades-long anti-India propaganda by the Pakistani state. He could have used it to score political points against the Pakistan People's Party government. To his great credit, the former Prime Minister has emerged as a voice of sanity and reason on Pakistan's relations with India. At a seminar organised by the South Asian Free Media Association in Lahore on the occasion of Pakistan's Independence Day, he urged his compatriots to conceptualise an economic rather than a military rivalry with India. He spoke of a motorway that would connect the subcontinent from Kolkata to Peshawar and from there to Central Asia. He also said it was time that Pakistan stopped blaming India for all its problems.
This is not the first time Mr. Sharif has taken such positions. He blames his military nemesis, Pervez Musharraf, for destroying his efforts to make peace with India in 1999 with the Kargil misadventure. Since his 2007 return from exile in Saudi Arabia, he has been a consistent advocate of building good relations with India. He has talked of “visa-free” travel between the two countries and the importance of building trade relations. He was the first to acknowledge that the Mumbai 2008 terrorist attackers were Pakistanis. Days after the May 2 Osama bin Laden raid by the U.S. military, he said, in defiance of the popular mood, that it was wrong to view India as the “number 1 enemy”. Mr. Sharif deserves full praise for taking a rational view of India-Pakistan relations without fear of the attendant political risks. For India, the position espoused by Mr. Sharif is reassurance that bipartisan support exists for the steps, however small, that Islamabad has taken and might want to take towards normalising relations with New Delhi in the post-2008 climate. Unfortunately, the UPA government, beset by other troubles, has been at best defensive about its efforts to restart a dialogue with Pakistan. The opposition BJP has been of no help. It has chosen to fall back on a populist hardline position on India-Pakistan ties instead of leading from the front to create political space towards normalisation. It has something to learn from Mr. Sharif.