Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced this week that backdoor diplomacy is back on track with India, signaling the new government’s commitment to forge a relationship with its neighbor and historic rival after recent bumpy months.
Prime Minister Sharif shared recent steps Pakistan was taking to build relations with India – including the appointment of veteran diplomat Shahryar Khan as a special envoy to India to start official diplomacy – while British Foreign Secretary William Hague was visiting Pakistan this week. And a spokesperson for Pakistan’s Foreign Office recently announced that there may be an opportunity for talks at the “leadership level” at the United Nations General Assembly session in September.
Improving ties with India could seriously benefit the Sharif administration. The Pakistani government wants to import electricity from India as part of its efforts to solve Pakistan’s energy crisis and is encouraging investment from across the border.
“The crux of the matter is that Pakistan wants good relations with India," says former Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar, who has also served as an ambassador to India. But he adds, "This effort started in 2004 and has not really produced really outstanding results other than some minor progress and confidence-building measures."
Sharif has long advocated for the improvement of economic and diplomatic ties with India. In 1999, during his last term as prime minister, he hosted his counterpart for a landmark visit as both countries signed a bilateral treaty. However, he was ousted in a coup that year following a botched military offensive against India.
Sharif frequently cited his role in improving ties as an achievement while on the campaign trail for Pakistan’s elections this year. And his party, the Pakistan Muslim League, won the majority vote, indicating he has popular support to continue mending ties with India.
Sharif may still face opposition from Pakistan’s powerful military – which has perceived India to be a major threat since the two countries gained independence from Britain in 1947 – as well as pressure groups and rival political parties. Such opposition makes some skeptical of the Sharif’s commitment to improved ties.
“When India’s Border Security Force goes and kills six Kashmiri protestors, [neither] the state nor society at large has anything to say about it,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, who served as a foreign policy adviser to the previous government, referring to an incident in Indian-controlled Kashmir earlier this week. “This is a change in Pakistan from a decade or so ago, when everything that happened in Kashmir was reported with great fervor. That events like this happened without any reaction from Pakistan is one measure of how much seriousness there is.”
Mr. Zaidi says that while the previous government also put a great deal of effort into the relationship with India, the domestic situation in India and Pakistan “holds back a lot of progress.”
“If both countries were doing well, people who are blocking reforms in the way of this relationship would be much weaker,” he says, noting that there did not seem to be an improvement in governance in either India or Pakistan. “Intentions in Pakistan are the best they’ve been in history, but good intentions alone cannot deliver a normal South Asia.”
Indeed, a major hurdle to repaired relations has to do with the contentious issue of terrorism: India has long demanded the prosecution of Pakistanis implicated in organizing a series of terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008, but the trial has been delayed multiple times in the past few years.
Analysts say the government has shown little commitment to acting against groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been held responsible for the Mumbai attacks, or the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which recruited Pakistanis to fight Indian forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Critics caution that without any significant process on these issues, it is unlikely that India and Pakistan can move forward.