Nawaz Sharif and Atal Bihari Vajpayee exchange the Lahore Declaration in February 1999
Islamabad, May 24: After some dilly-dallying, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif today accepted an unprecedented invite to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in, setting the stage for the first bilateral summit between the prickly neighbours since the November 2008 terror assault on Mumbai.
It’s moot, though, if the cross-border gesturing will unveil a new future or fail to banish a history of animosity and aggression.
Islamabad’s positive response, in the face of shrill opposition from some sections, to the incipient Modi government has touched off new expectations of an end to the tense sub-continental deadlock. But the up-down history of Indo-Pak ties has left any optimism tempered by notes of caution.
“It’s a good start but we shouldn’t be frighteningly excited about results,” Ayesha Siddiqa, one of Pakistan’s foremost strategic analysts, told The Telegraph.
“This is going to be a first meeting: why must anyone expect more than preparatory things? What I do find positive is that Sharif has taken this decision defying a range of opposing voices, including Maleeha Lodhi (columnist and former Pakistani ambassador to the US) and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa,” Siddiqa said.
The Jamaat is believed to be a front for the militant outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba, which India blames for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
“But I would stress that neither side is prepared with anything substantive at the moment — so this can at best be a beginning. Good if this can become a good beginning,” Siddiqa said.
There has been significant debate, open and covert, in Pakistan over whether Sharif should accept an invitation from a man who has often been belligerent on Pakistan and represents a Right-wing party.
But if some hard-line sections have “cautioned” Sharif against going to Modi’s inauguration, civil society groups and the media have exhorted him to take the opportunity. Whether the army-intelligence complex has reservations has remained speculation.
Sharif is taking along a high-powered delegation that will include his national security and foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, special assistant Tariq Fatemi, and foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry. Aziz has been pushing informal communication between the two governments since Sharif came to power last year.
Sharif’s decision to accept the invite “will have a good impact on our future ties with India as well as on overall peace and stability in South Asia”, the leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly and senior Pakistan People’s Party leader, Syed Khursheed Shah, said.
A senior Lahore-based commentator, Mehmal Sarfraz, said the upcoming visit had the potential to kindle a new start.
“The chief reason I say this is that Manmohan Singh never came because of domestic pressure and a man like Modi has lost no time in making a gesture. The thing is that both Sharif and Modi enjoy the advantage of belonging to essentially Right-wing domestic constituencies, so the charge of indulging in unpatriotic sell-out does not stick to them,” Sarfraz said.
“In 2007, when Gen. (Pervez) Musharraf was actually quite strong, Manmohan Singh could have achieved something with Pakistan but they did not show the will or purpose. My sense is, Sharif has actually been waiting for this change in India to make his move; Modi gave him the ideal opportunity and he was happy to accept it.”
Sharif does have a history of “breaking ice” with an NDA government. At his invitation in February 1999, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had taken a historic bus ride across the Wagah border into Lahore for the signing of the Lahore Declaration.
The symbolism of that breakthrough was soon stained by the intrusion of Pakistan Army-backed infiltrators into the Kargil-Batalik sectors. But Sarfraz argued that a Sharif-Modi dialogue could move ahead, given the right domestic support.
“Sharif has long been saying he wants peace and trade with India. In fact, that was his election plank. But he sensed that it would not happen with a weakened Manmohan. Now may be his chance,” she said.