The denial by Nawaz Sharif of his “fourth war over Kashmir” remark, and his reiteration that problems with India have to be resolved through peaceful methods, came not a moment too soon. The Pakistan Prime Minister had been quoted as saying that “Kashmir is a flashpoint and can trigger a fourth war between the two nuclear powers at any time,” in his address to the “Azad Jammu and Kashmir Council” in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Denying that he had ever made such a remark, his office put out a transcript of his speech that had no mention of the word war. This is the second time that Mr. Sharif has had to deny words attributed to him on India, the first when he was said to have made a personal remark against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It can only mean one of two things: either Mr. Sharif speaks without thinking through the impact of his words, only to regret it later; or what he says is deliberately distorted. Both have the same effect, of vitiating the already bad bilateral atmosphere. In this instance, the reported talk of war set off alarms in India, and was even seen in the context of the recent change at the top in the Pakistan Army. The normally unflappable Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in the thick of election season, jumped in to respond with the remark that Pakistan would not be able to win a war against India “in my lifetime”. The episode has shown up Pakistan and India in poor light for their inability to act like mature nations, falling back instead on vocabulary more typical of quarrelsome people trying to settle scores.
Prime Minister Sharif was right to point out that Kashmir is a key issue in the list of problems between the two countries. A resolution to the issue was close in 2006. Mr. Sharif would do well to examine dispassionately the merits of the Musharraf-era proposals despite the bad history between him and Pakistan’s former military ruler. This and the host of other issues, including Siachen, should be reason enough for the two countries to get back to the negotiating table quickly. But inexplicably, even the simple directive by the two Prime Ministers at their September meeting in New York asking their militaries to take steps to strengthen the ceasefire on the Line of Control has not been carried out. For Mr. Sharif, who both before and after his election made no secret of his desire to make peace with India, the time to take ownership of his government’s India policy is now, when his mandate is fresh. It would also help put the lid on anti-Pakistan rhetoric on the Indian side in the run-up to the 2014 elections, and prevent the atmosphere from worsening.