Despite being attacked by some in Pakistan for being soft on India, Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in his position that he will work to improve ties between the two countries

The hope among some in India of better bilateral relations with Pakistan under Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister could well be the undoing of his India policy even before it is crafted. Much before his path to the Prime Minister’s house was cleared for the third time, Pakistani hawks were at him for making pro-India statements in his election rallies and interviews to the Indian media.

Ripping apart Mr. Sharif’s recent interview to CNN-IBN’s “Devil’s Advocate” and other India-related references, a report in The News said: “In his bid to appease India or vent his pent up anger on the military establishment, days before the May 11 elections, Mian Nawaz Sharif have (sic!) gone to the extent of committing that if he returns to power he would share the reports of commissions on Kargil and Mumbai incidents with New Delhi.”

For now, however, Mr. Sharif appears to be holding his ground if his remarks in an interview to the Wall Street Journal soon after establishing a decisive lead in the vote count are anything to go by. “We’ll pick the threads where we left. We want to move toward better relations with India, to resolve the remaining issues through peaceful means, including that of Kashmir.”

While no civilian government can cast its India policy in stone — as the military still has the last word on strategic affairs and foreign policy as it pertains to New Delhi, Washington, Beijing and Kabul — those who have watched his political journey from the Zia days say that he has matured as a politician and remained consistent on India.

Trade

“He is a businessman and has always believed in trade with India,” said veteran journalist M. Afzal Khan. While Mr. Sharif always spoke out in public meetings against India when he was Chief Minister during Benazir Bhutto’s stint as premier, Mr. Khan recalled that “he would insist in private that those statements were basically political in nature for domestic consumption.”

His first stint as Prime Minister did not see much positive movement on India but in his second tenure he did make efforts resulting in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore and the Lahore Declaration. Kargil upset all that but, as Mr. Khan pointed out, since then he has never spoken against India.

Indeed, Mr. Sharif has always insisted he was kept in the dark about the Pakistan Army’s Kargil adventure, though he was then the Prime Minister. However, varied accounts on what transpired in the days ahead of the intrusions, provide a more mixed picture, the latest being a book by the then Director-General of the Analysis Wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Shahid Aziz. He has indicated that Mr. Sharif might not have been completely in the dark about the “Kargil misadventure” orchestrated by then Chief of Army Staff Pervez Musharraf and three other generals. The retired general recalls a colleague telling him that Mr. Sharif asked “when are you giving us Kashmir” during an informal discussion, challenging the new Prime Minister-designate’s denials.

Plus there is the growing corpus of evidence that show the behind-the-scene agreements — including pre-electoral arrangements, his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has with jihadi outfits, many of them with an anti-India focus. In the 2010 Punjab budget, his brother Shahbaz Sharif’s government allocated PKR 80 million to institutions linked to the Jamat-ud-Da’wah (JuD) despite it being on the United Nations' terror list. The provincial government’s plea was that these schools and hospitals had been taken over by the administration as closing them down would be counterproductive.

How these Faustian bargains — Mr. Shahbaz Sharif himself has secured help from the banned anti-Shia outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba and its many incarnations in his elections — will impact PML(N)’s policies remains to be seen. But, Mr. Afzal Khan was optimistic. “Despite being right-leaning and his good relations with JuD chief Hafiz Saeed, Mr. Sharif never said anything against India during his entire campaign.”

No resonance

If anything, Mr. Sharif flagged Mr. Vajpayee’s Lahore bus journey as a major achievement in many of his election rallies. “He has been consistent on improving relations with India,” is a commonly heard refrain about Mr. Sharif.

In fact, there is across-the-political spectrum consensus on the need to improve relations with India. Through the elections, there were no reports of any mainstream political party using anti-India rhetoric to garner support and Kashmir was not an issue, finding nothing more than a passing reference in most manifestos.

An attempt made by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf office-bearer Shireen Mazari to fan anti-India sentiment in Islamabad in the twilight hours of the campaign by referring to Pakistani prisoner Sanaullah, who had succumbed to his injuries in a Chandigarh hospital earlier in the day, drew no response.

If there is any issue on which bitter political rivals agree, it is on improving relations with India.

Given its support base within the trading community, the PML(N) is in favour of improving trade relations with India and has been supportive of granting India most-favoured-nation status. Its comfortable position in Parliament should allow the party to push forth with this agenda but negotiating the India relationship would remain a tightrope walk given the PML(N)’s uneasy relationship with forces in Pakistan that have always succeeded in ratcheting up the anti-India rhetoric when it suits them.

The PML(N) manifesto states that the party is committed to trade with India but will also make special efforts to resolve the Jammu & Kashmir issue in accordance with “the provisions of the relevant United Nations resolutions and the 1999 Lahore Accord and in consonance with the aspirations of the people of the territory for their inherent right of self-determination.”

Transit economy

In keeping with its trade focus, the PML(N) is also eager to take advantage of Pakistan’s location at the junction of South, West and Central Asia to develop a “transit economy” for the country. “Pakistan can also develop a flourishing transit economy because it provides the shortest land routes from Western China to the Arabian Sea, through the Gwadar Port, while linking India with Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and providing land route from Iran to India and access to the CARs to the Arabian Sea and India for oil/gas pipelines.”

Non-committal on whether this could include revisiting the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement 2010 to allow India to send goods to Afghanistan and beyond through Pakistan, former Ambassador Tariq Fatemi, who was part of the manifesto drafting exercise, said: “Mr. Sharif believes the bilateral relationship should be extended to include the region as regional uplift is crucial.”

More In: Comment | Opinion