The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) belied some naysayers last week, gathering an impressive crowd for Nawaz Sharif’s ‘homecoming’ rally that rubbished any impression of his political sidelining. Addressing his supporters at Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan, the former prime minister laid down his plan of action if the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) wins the upcoming elections, realistically focusing on reduction in government and administrative expenditures and vowing to improve ties with regional states to boost trade. He also discussed increasing incomes and revenues and stressed on the need for fundamental reforms in the taxation system; though this is often promised by political leaders prior to assuming power and is promptly forgotten once they do.
What was apparent from Sharif’s speech was his commitment to seeking “normalization” of ties between Pakistan and its regional neighbors, especially India, despite political rivals using his past attempts at the same to steer public sentiment against him. In 1999, Nawaz convinced then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to visit Lahore, enacting a new bilateral agreement and governance treaty between the neighboring nations. This fell apart a few months later with the Kargil War, when the Pakistan Army infiltrated into strategic positions on the Indian side of the Line of Control. Nawaz attempted another détente in 2015, with Indian P.M. Narendra Modi visiting Lahore on a “surprise” visit. That saw parties such as the PPP and PTI targeting Nawaz with jibes of “Whoever is Modi’s friend is a traitor.”
Sharif’s Oct. 21 speech suggests he wishes to resume efforts to expand trade and investment with India, a policy supported by many prominent Pakistani businesspeople. For once, however, the establishment also appears to be onboard, with former Army chief Gen. (retd.) Qamar Javed Bajwa and incumbent Gen. Asim Munir both talking up the benefits of regional trade. The prevailing view is that while direct bilateral trade remains far below its potential, a substantial volume of goods reaches both countries via intermediaries, indicating the benefits of normalizing ties.
Hampering Nawaz’s planned efforts is a political opposition that relies on textbook nationalism that sees India as a perennial enemy—even at the cost of Pakistan’s economy. It is likely that any attempts at normalization would also bring the Kashmir dispute into center-stage, even though Pakistan today is far more threatened by its western border with Afghanistan. These naysayers must be ignored; Nawaz has the right plan, now he just has to stick with it.