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Explained: With Shehbaz Sharif as PM, India-Pakistan ties may see ‘diplomatic opening’

The Sharif family has always been an advocate of better ties with India. Shehbaz’s last India visit was in December 2013, when he met then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Commerce Minister Anand Sharma.

Shehbaz Sharif, New Pakistan PM, Imran Khan, India-Pakistan ties, Express Explained, Explained global, no-confidence vote, India pakistan relations, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, The Indian Express, Pakistan newsLeader of the opposition Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sherif, brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, gestures as he speaks to the media at the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Islamabad. (Reuters)

With Shehbaz Sharif set to be the next Pakistan Prime Minister, New Delhi is watching the developments in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore with “cautious optimism” about a headway in bilateral ties.

Top sources said the change in regime may offer a “diplomatic opening”. According to sources in the strategic establishment, the implications may be far-reaching.

* Known to be the Pakistan Army’s candidate, Imran Khan’s government was widely referred to as a “hybrid regime”. His ouster, after falling out of favour, is a clear signal that the Pakistan Army is in “complete control”. It has shown that the power to change the prime minister still lies in Rawalpindi — the Pakistan Army’s headquarters.

* Emerging out of the shadow of his elder brother and former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) president, is known to be close to the Army — he was chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province (equivalent to Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra put together in terms of its importance in national politics).

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The Sharif family has always been an advocate of better ties with India. Shehbaz’s last India visit was in December 2013, when he met then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, visited Metro stations and solid waste management plants in Delhi, and a power plant in Haryana. He also visited Punjab and held meetings with then Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, where he worked on a roadmap for cooperation between the two Punjabs.

“Our records suggest that he was very focused and result-oriented in his meetings, and really wanted to build on the ties between the two countries,” said a source who was part of some of the meetings in 2013.

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While interacting with a select group of journalists including The Indian Express then, Shehbaz had said that “war is not an option”, and had pitched for the resumption of “peaceful dialogue” on all issues including “Sir Creek, Siachen, water and Kashmir”.

On his meeting with Singh, he had said: “I told him that both trade and commerce have to be combined with strategic issues… only exchange of cultural troupes is not enough…We have to resolve problems through talks… not an option to brush problems under the carpet… have to address them (problems).”

Officials pointed out that the core concerns of the two countries remain the same over the last decade, and Shehbaz is well placed to take forward the bilateral conversation.

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Supporters of an opposition party celebrate the success of a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Imran Khan, in Karachi (AP)

* Better trade ties with India could provide the much-needed boost to Pakistan’s economy. Known to be focussed on infrastructure projects – he is credited for many roads, bridges, flyovers and transport projects in Punjab province – Shehbaz may be keen to deliver before the next elections in 2023.

* Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is believed to have handpicked Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for his “pro-democracy views”. Known to be liked by the military – the Pakistan Army has repeatedly tried to field him for the prime minister’s post in the past – Shehbaz may find an ally in Bajwa.

* There are some green shoots in the otherwise fractious India-Pakistan ties at present. First, the ceasefire, as agreed upon in February last year, has largely been adhered to. This builds confidence that the understanding at the higher political-military level as well as the ground level has been observed and they are broadly in sync. Second, the situation in Afghanistan, and India’s humanitarian help – transportation of wheat via Pakistan – has shown that there is scope for cooperation for “limited purpose”, sources said.

* A major irritant between the two countries, especially after the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, has been Imran Khan’s strong language against the Indian government including personal attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the BJP-RSS. Sources said that with Khan’s departure, such attacks, at least at the highest political level, are likely to end.

However, there are challenges to this relationship. While Pakistan Peoples Party, helmed by Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is also positive about ties with India, it may be politically difficult for the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris to open a diplomatic dialogue, in view of India’s position on Kashmir as well as Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

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Zardari’s ambitions for his son, Bilawal, will also pose a challenge for Shehbaz. With Khan’s exit, the two political rivals — Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris — will be contesting for the prime spot, especially with an eye on elections next year. And the PTI, led by Khan, will oppose the ruling coalition’s every move.

While New Delhi has been in and out of Islamabad’s political discourse, Khan praised India for its foreign policy this time, as he targeted Pakistan’s military establishment. This is viewed by many in Delhi as his regime’s “scorched earth policy”, making it difficult for his successor to move on.

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Shehbaz may be in the driver’s seat for now, but the leadership battle in the Sharif family is far from over, with Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam said to be the heir apparent.

“While the broad signs are positive, the relationship with Pakistan is very unpredictable… and it takes just one terror attack or a black swan incident (like the lawyers’ agitation against General Pervez Musharraf) to change the discourse. We will wait and watch every move closely,” a senior official told The Indian Express.

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First published on: 11-04-2022 at 04:00:33 am
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