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Business before border
Sharif offers Modi chance to end curse

New Delhi, May 27: Nawaz Sharif has told Narendra Modi that India and Pakistan should put aside their territorial disputes and move ahead in consolidating and expanding their economic engagement.

The proposal appeared to have caught the imagination of the new Indian Prime Minister, according to people present at the meeting of the two leaders, and may finally lead to some headway in improving bilateral relations after many false starts in a decade.

That apart, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai was the most popular of the eight foreign leaders who graced the occasion of the swearing-in of the Indian Prime Minister. Karzai swept the Prime Minister off his feet with his Hindi and Urdu, in addition to his personality, according to officials present at Modi’s meetings with the foreign leaders.

The first of the eight leaders to arrive in New Delhi yesterday, Sharif held marathon meetings with his Indian friends since the time of his arrival in the country. Most of his Indian interlocutors confirmed the Pakistan Prime Minister’s own assessments on ways to break the stagnation in India-Pakistan relations.

Sharif had called to New Delhi in advance of his arrival many trusted Indian friends in order to prepare himself for meeting the new Indian Prime Minister.

According to some of these Indian friends who met the Pakistani leader, Sharif was completely unconcerned that Modi may drag his feet on resolving outstanding disputes with neighbours, insisting instead on a hardline approach.

He was confident that once India and Pakistan developed a mutual stake in economic cooperation, other things could follow. Sharif asked searching questions at his interactions about Modi’s sincerity in inviting heads of state and government like himself. He also wanted to know how corporate India would react to such an approach.

If Sharif’s initiative is accepted by both sides, it may be the second time in India’s neighbourhood diplomacy that an effort is being made to build bilateral relations around territorial and other disputes which defy easy or immediate solutions.

When relations between India and China improved long after their 1962 border war, Deng Xiaoping, the architect of his country’s current economic miracle, proposed a similar approach to the unsettled border dispute between the two countries.

Such an approach has been fruitful and Sharif now wants to copy those results in his dealings with India. He said at his meeting with Modi that improving Pakistan’s economy was his priority and that the new Indian Prime Minister shared such a priority with respect to his own country.

The two leaders, Sharif hoped, could work together in producing economic results while territorial disputes are left to history to sort themselves out.

Sharif ensured before meeting Modi that a critical message was conveyed through back channels to the new Prime Minister that was designed to build trust and offer proof of his government’s bona fide in dealing with the BJP-led government.

That critical message was that the Sharif government had deliberately held back non-discriminatory market access to India until a new government took charge after the elections.

In his meetings with Indian friends, who are powerful enough to influence policy, Sharif was frank enough to admit that Islamabad had concluded as long as a year ago that India’s electorate would teach a lesson at the ballot box for the acts of omission and commission by the Manmohan Singh government.

It was decided in Islamabad then that the gesture of granting most favoured nation treatment to India would be wasted on a government that was lame duck and on its last legs. The gesture would produce better results if it was invested on an India that would take political shape after the polls.

Sharif also conveyed through back channels on the eve of meeting Modi that the Pakistan Army’s general headquarters had no reservations about improving economic relations with India. Its veto would only apply to political relations and dispute resolutions.

Karzai became an instant favourite with Modi when he told the Prime Minister what he wanted to hear. The President squarely blamed the Lashkar-e-Toiba for the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat.

Modi thanked Karzai for the bravery of Afghan forces which killed all but one of the terrorists who attacked the Indian facility. Modi’s expression of gratitude was deep and genuine: had the terrorists taken Indian diplomats hostage, it would have cast a long shadow on the biggest day in Modi’s life yet, his assumption of office in the Rashtarapati Bhavan forecourt on Monday.

A successful terror attack would also have created a situation similar to the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in 1999 and its climax in Kandahar. That could have meant that the first decision of the Modi government would have been a dilemma over releasing terrorists in Indian jails as in 1999.

Any outcome whichever way of such a situation would have dented Modi’s image on day one in office. Karzai helped prevent such a crisis for which Modi was grateful and that sentiment was evident at their meeting today, according to those present.