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India’s domestic woes dwarf Pakistani overtures for peace

Nawaz Sharif (C), incoming prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) political party, speaks to his party members who were voted to political posts in the general election, in Lahore May 20, 2013.


Pakistan's prime minister-elect Nawaz Sharif has been at pains to reach out to India since his election nine days ago, inviting its leaders to visit and assuring the citizens of his country's historic enemy that peace is a top priority.

But India, while politely appreciative, has too much going on at home to be very interested in Mr. Sharif and his overtures.

"The Indian political leadership … doesn't have the political capital to do anything," said security analyst Ashok Malik.

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He noted that the last major peace initiatives between the two nations – in 2003, 2004 and 2005 – happened when there was a major American presence in Afghanistan that shifted the focus of Pakistan's military off Kashmir and India and when the economy was booming.

"Indians felt confident, there was a mood of 'let's do a deal,'" recalled Mr. Malik. "Those conditions don't apply today. … It's not even a priority for the Indians. So much else happening – or not happening."

While relations with India, and the future of the disputed territory of Kashmir, are a huge domestic political issue for Pakistan, they fall considerably far down on the list of political priorities here these days. The Indian National Congress-led government is beset by a seemingly-unending series of scandals. The economy has stalled out at about 5.5 per cent growth, barely more than half what was anticipated. And a national election with no obvious leading candidate, and the promise of another dysfunctional, fractured parliament, looms next year.

Omar Abdullah, chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, part of which Pakistan claims as its territory, said in a meeting with the foreign press on Monday that Mr. Sharif's warmth can only be good, for India and the region.

"For us what's been interesting is how little was said on the Kashmir issue in the Pakistan election – usually the statements are far more strident. But having good, normal relations with India was more of an issue [in this election] than Kashmir was – and that's good for everyone," said Mr. Abdullah.

However Mr. Abdullah noted that while Mr. Sharif has a new mandate to pursue peace with India, no Indian politician has a comparable one. "It's too much to hope for progress in the next year, going into the election cycle," he said. "But if we can continue to talk to each other we can resolve small issues."

Mr. Abdullah said the dominant feeling within the Indian government when Mr. Sharif won a decisive victory in the Pakistani poll was relief – because he is a known quantity. "Always better the devil you know," he said. Imran Khan, the ex-cricketer turned charismatic politician, was a much more alarming prospective prime minister, he added, because the tenor of his remarks about relations with India changed wildly depending on whether he was speaking to an Indian or international audience versus addressing one at home.

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Mr. Sharif seems much more keen on peace. But the perception in India – with some justification – is that, ultimately, what Mr. Sharif wants matters little: The real decision on any change in relations with India lies with the Pakistani military.

In 1999, Mr. Sharif was forging ahead with a peace process when the military, determined to scupper any chance of a deal, sent soldiers disguised as militants to capture Indian outposts in the mountains in Kashmir, initiating a brief nasty war in which the Pakistanis were trounced. Mr. Sharif tried to fire the general who initiated the war – Pervez Musharraf – at which point Mr. Musharraf seized power in a coup and Mr. Sharif went to prison and then into exile for 14 years.

Senior officials in the Pakistani armed forces, many Indians believe, feed the populist idea of a constant threat from avaricious India next door in order to justify the country's massive military spending.

Most Indians also continue to believe that Pakistan covertly backs and trains militants who infiltrate India – most notably in a 2008 rampage through the city of Mumbai – although defence analysts here disagree on how much of this the military or intelligence services are still actively involved in.

On Monday, the Australia-based Lowy Institute for International Policy released the results of a poll of 1,233 Indians about their views of the country's prospects and place in the world. It found that while 94 per cent said Pakistan is a threat, nearly as many – 89 per cent – agree that ordinary people in both countries want peace. Three-quarters of the Indians surveyed said their own country should take the initiative to make peace.

But Mr. Malik, the security analyst, noted that the poll found that 56 per cent of Indians surveyed also said they believed peace with Pakistan would probably never be achieved, and 48 per cent said it didn't really matter.

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More


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