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Few takeaways for Sharif

Publication Date : 30-05-2014


Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not at his expansive best during his short visit to India to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. The next morning at the bilateral, he appeared not very comfortable, as he shook hands with a smiling Modi without meeting his eye, except once. No, Sharif was not his usual self.

And this became apparent as the day wore on. He was scheduled to address the media at 2.30 in the afternoon. The hours wore on and there was no sign of the Pakistan delegation although the Prime Minister had finished his last meeting and was back at the hotel.

Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh’s press briefing was held and completed. Shortly after, Sharif emerged with a written statement in hand. He read from this and before anyone could even ask a question, turned around and left without ceremony. Or for that matter a hospitable Pakistani goodbye.

For those following Pakistan-India relations, it was clear. The bilateral had not gone as Pakistan wanted and there was some cause for tension. The bonhomie was missing even though the Indian television channels had for at least one evening lowered the levels of rhetoric, and were actually welcoming of the Pakistan Prime Minister.

But the next day, there was clear tension in the air. And Sharif himself did not say a word about terrorism or Kashmir in his short statement. He just hoped for better relations, and although Singh had said that the bilateral had decided the Foreign Secretaries would meet at some point, he said that they would meet soon to work out the talks and take up the pending issues.

Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj clarified the government’s position when she assumed office a day after the bilateral. She said that while her government was committed to the talks, this could only happen if Pakistan took the necessary steps to crack down on terrorism, and moved for justice in the 26/11 case.

Sharif, on the other hand, ran into expected trouble on his return to Pakistan. He has received considerable flak for not raising Kashmir even once during his visit.

This becomes even more of an issue, as he seemed to have returned empty-handed without firm dates, or even a firm assurance that relations between the two governments would proceed as per Islamabad’s wishes. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accepted the invitation to visit Pakistan, as he did the invites from all the Saarc leaders, and has said that the foreign secretaries would take up the issue. But the non-committal briefing by the foreign secretary made it clear that New Delhi was in no hurry to normalise these relations.

Pakistan on the other hand, is in a hurry. It is in the midst of a turbulent relationship with Afghanistan, with the Taliban on both sides of the border giving it serious trouble. The Pakistan Army’s patience is running out and Army chief General Raheel Sharif has now made it clear to the PM at a meeting that he is no mood to keep waiting for the non-existent talks to yield results. And that the terror hits on his soldiers were forcing his hand in stepping up military operations against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan that was clearly not going to stop the violence. In fact the TTP has been targeting the Pakistan Army, leading General Sharif to declare that no mercy would be shown to the militants from now on.

Sharif, thus, is in a tight corner as the military operations will result in alienation and civil strife. Opposition leaders like Imran Khan have already moved out of the ‘wait and watch’ mode to attack the government for not stopping the military operations that have reportedly killed more civilians than militants already. This attack on the government is expected to sharpen as the days move on, with the Pakistan Army moving out of the civilian shadows to take its own positions. More so, as the USA is in withdrawal mode, Afghanistan is to get a new President very soon, and the Pakistan Army clearly has a sense of time running out.

If the Northern Alliance’s Abdullah Abdullah comes to power, as he is expected to, relations between Kabul and Islamabad are not going to improve. Abdullah has been hostile to Pakistan since his more active Northern Alliance days, and although differences have developed because of levels of mishandling, he has a far better relationship with New Delhi.

Sharif is feeling the squeeze, more so as for the first time his relations with his Army are not what he would have liked it to be. For all his talk of a civilian upper hand, he knows better than most others that this is possible only so long as the Pakistan Army allows it.

General Raheel Sharif was handpicked by him to head the Army, over and above contenders who he felt would not be as supportive, simply because they had been recommended by others, for instance the previous Army chief, and he is feeling the heat. An Army General in Pakistan is loyal only to the uniform and the institution, and certainly not to a political leader.

General Sharif had earlier made it very clear that the Army wanted a clear passage out of Pakistan for the former chief and President, General Pervez Musharraf. And that his humiliation at the hands of the civilian apparatus was not going to be acceptable. This stand remains, and to it now has been added the very serious and crucial difference in approach towards the TTP. Sharif would still like to continue the dialogue; the Army is clear that there is no time and no more room for the TTP insofar as it is concerned.

In the midst of this, a successful India visit would have gone a long way to bolster Sharif’s confidence and support at home. The empty-handed return is adding to the pressures on him, and it will not be an exaggeration to say that he is going to be feeling the heat domestically on all fronts. The ‘no give’ stance of New Delhi is certainly not what he was hoping for, when he defied the Pakistan Army’s reservations and came across to shake Modi’s hand.

(The writer is Editor-in-Chief of The Citizen,  a daily online newspaper)


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