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Editorial: Talking Peace with India … Again?

P.M. Sharif’s speech in Kazakhstan raised anew the prospect of normalization of ties, but long-standing disputes persist

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P.M. Sharif at the 6th summit of CICA in Kazakhstan. Photo courtesy PMO

At the 6th summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Kazakhstan, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif once again offered peaceful relations with “all its neighbors, including India in particular,” stressing the need for both countries to fight poverty rather than each other, and work together to reduce joblessness amidst a dearth of resources. This is not the first time this wish has been expressed by a Pakistani leader. Let us not forget that Prime Minister Imran Khan also offered “normalization” to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, after coming to power. That Khan was serious in peace efforts was signaled again when he got his assistant Moeed Yusuf to advise him on relations with India.

The question that arises, as it has arisen a number of times in the past, is: can India and Pakistan act as normal neighbors? This question was also asked by America’s well known scholar Stephen Cohen in his writings. He had thought that Khan actually wanted “normalization” with India by moving away from the unspoken “Kashmir revisionist” stance vis-à-vis India permanently adopted by Pakistan and highlighted by such incidents as the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008 in which Pakistan’s infamous “non-state actors” were used. There was a time when India as a status quo power wanted Pakistan to join talks on bilateral “normalization,” but the Kashmir jihad was going in Pakistan’s favor and India was seen as being “under pressure.” When the two came to the negotiating table, India wanted to address the general theme of normalization first but stuck to “the precondition of Kashmir.”

Indian concessions were thought of because the covert jihad in Kashmir was still a concern, though it started to slump towards the end of the 1990s. But today the scenario is different and India, economically much better off than flood-stricken Pakistan, is in with the U.S. taking steps to bring China under pressure in the Eastern Pacific. Towards the end of the 1990s both India and Pakistan had felt the pressure of making a compromise on the “core issue” but this phase was ended by the change of government in Pakistan in 1999. Again, a revival of this phase by General Musharraf in 2001 had come to nothing because neither he nor the BJP government was fully in control at home to undertake the kind of statesmanship that was required for a “compromise.”

General Musharraf’s rule in Pakistan wavered between pacifism and hostility towards India. His foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri (2002-2007) was probably the most intellectually equipped politician to undertake the policy of normalization with India. Today, things are different. Pakistan is internally jolted by the Imran Khan phenomenon and even if India feels inclined to ”normalize,” it might be persuaded to wait and see how Pakistan gets out of its many internal and foreign policy problems before it talks peace. Prime Minister Sharif might be looked at with favor in Kazakhstan but his status in Pakistan awaits better conditions, where he can feel empowered to talk peace with India even while politically disadvantaged at home.

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