The South Asia Channel
Sharif is Taken to Task at Home
A meeting between Sharif and Modi at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit is hailed a victory in India but has been greeted with cautious optimism in Pakistan.
The July 10 meeting between Pakistani Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Modi on the sidelines of the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Ufa, Russia has been greeted with cautious optimism in Pakistan. The two premieres met for an hour-long meeting during their first appearances as full members of the six-member regional security group that includes China and Russia.
The meeting, hailed in India as a diplomatic victory, has earned criticism and has been viewed as a one-sided dialogue in Pakistan. While most political parties in Pakistan have welcomed the meeting itself as a positive step to easing relations between the hostile neighbors, the mood overall appears to be cautious. The joint statement following the meeting lacked a direct mention of Kashmir (which remains a core issue for both sides) but included a specific mention of expediting the 26/11 Mumbai trial by “including additional information like providing voice samples” had many political commentators in Pakistan criticizing Sharif for giving concessions to India without making any demands of his own. Shireen Mazari, a senior leader of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the strongest opposition party to Sharif’s current government, slammed Sharif for “appeasing” India without raising the issue of alleged funding from its intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and support for terrorist activities in Balochistan, Karachi, and FATA; an unusually direct claim made by the military’s top brass but one that remains unsupported by publicly available proof.
Pakistan has also been defensive about comments made earlier this year by Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval regarding the Indian strategy of destabilizing Pakistan through promoting terrorism and separatism. PPP’s Vice President Senator Sherry Rehman also tweeted:, “We welcome Modi to the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit and support Sharif in peace moves but statement should reflect Pakistan’s concerns too. Right now it’s one sided.” The meeting has been criticized for not representing Pakistan’s terms and thus setting a dangerous precedent for future diplomatic developments.
Indo-Pak relations took a serious hit when in June, during a two-day visit to Bangladesh, Prime Minister Modi described the bilateral relations as a “nuisance” arguing that Pakistan continues to promote terrorism in the region and hailed the role of India in fighting for the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. He reminded the audience of the Indian sacrifices in 1971 and its decision to return the 90,000 PoW held captive out of grace for not settling scores with Pakistan on Bangladeshi soil. Meant to incite outrage, Modi’s statements were strongly condemned from all political parties and official agencies in Pakistan and were seen as fanning hatred between Pakistan and Bangladesh; two nations that share an uneasy past. Modi’s statement has been viewed as an acknowledgement of India’s “intervention” in the breakup of East Pakistan in 1971 and its threat to destabilize Pakistan through terrorism. The Prime Minister’s boasting of Indian involvement has “only confirmed Pakistan’s stance on India’s negative role against a sovereign neighboring state,” according to the Pakistan Foreign Office. The statement was termed “regrettable” and criticized India for taking “pride in recalling their interference in the internal affairs of other states.” Modi has adopted a hawkish attitude towards Pakistan — not only in terms of the bilateral relationship, but also within regional bodies. Commenting on the failure to convince all SAARC countries to agree on a plan on connectivity, Modi stated: “Just because some countries don’t agree, it doesn’t mean we cannot get ahead without them;” a clear sign to Pakistan that he intends to move forward with the “SAARC minus 1” strategy and engage with other players while isolating Pakistan. India is currently vying for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, a move that has been blocked by China. Ahead of the SCO Summit, Prime Minister Modi also expressed his dismay to Chinese President Xi Jinping, over China’s decision to block action in the UN against Pakistan for releasing Mumbai attack mastermind, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. Regional politics are critical for India and even an aggressive stance towards Pakistan may not yield the greater regional benefits it seeks.
In what has become the norm, Sharif appeared diplomatically weak and failing to tow Pakistan’s line. From being taken to task for not pushing Pakistan’s agenda aggressively enough to the stark absence of an official media entourage that could have ensured a more effective narrative, Sharif and his Foreign Office are engaged in desperate damage control. The Prime Minister’s body language has not traditionally been assertive and his support base at home is swiftly dwindling. The absence of presenting Pakistan’s concerns and ensuring a meeting on equal footing has often been Sharif’s key problem in diplomacy, even though the content of the meetings may not be decided by the civilian government. Seen as generally meek, Sharif’s foreign policy record and achievements so far have not been particularly impressive. Modi on the other hand campaigned on promises of transforming India and, with economics at the heart of his foreign policy agenda, he has successfully pitched India as an investment hub — not only to western nations but also throughout the region and the Indian diaspora, in exchange for an understanding of India’s security and strategic concerns, amongst other things. With Afghanistan facing its bloodiest year yet and China’s growing influence in the region, Modi’s foreign trips in a bid to forge economic ties may yield far greater dividends in the coming few years than Pakistan’s tunnel-visioned diplomacy. However, Modi is outwardly concerned about the possibility of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that links China’s Xinjiang province with Pakistan’s Gwadar port through Pakistan occupied Kashmir, a project that Pakistan has adamantly pushed. China’s Pakistan policy is set in stone and it is highly unlikely that Modi’s diplomatic ventures or public disapproval will be able to sway the $46 billion Chinese investment — most of which will be allocated to the CPEC.
While Sharif failed to use the present opportunity to put forward Pakistan’s concerns on terrorism, it is unlikely that this or the issue of Kashmir, Siachen, or border clashes along the LOC will not be raised at all. The reason is simple. Pakistan’s foreign policy, specifically with regards to India and Afghanistan is framed by the military. Despite Sharif’s interest is enhancing investment and creating a business environment, Pakistan’s foreign policy by default is expected to focus on security and be militarily-heavy in terms of solutions. Sharif already shares an uneasy relationship with the military but contrary to cliché predictions, the Pakistan Army is unlikely to take over; at least not overtly. It is even more unlikely to let the civilian government dictate terms on India. The military already handles important policy matters from behind the scenes, whether this is because the civilian government is publicly viewed as incompetent or whether it’s the Army’s strategy of letting civilians take the fall, in the event there is one. Waging a military operation and stretched thin on other matters of internal security, the military understands the importance of keeping civil-military relations cordial; not because of some grand epiphany of trust but simply because both sides need each other. The military establishment has made an attempt to publicly work with and support the government on a number of initiatives but it is deeply unlikely to give it a free reign in the realm of foreign policy.
Sharif has come off as weak and appeasing to the Indian side, which, through effective media managing, has publicized the correct narrative of Indian diplomatic strength. However, mutual trust remains a long way away and Modi’s confrontational strategy has not helped. His hostile policies have only created more space and legitimacy for the Pakistan military to further a “hostile India” narrative that has many takers: a trend likely to increase should Modi continue with instigating Pakistan. India’s political, economic and military strength will be an important determinant as it gears its foreign policy but instigation and ego-diplomacy may not be in its best interests. A regional policy that isolates Pakistan is simply impossible in a region where Pakistan is a key and integrated player.
A disastrous joint statement that failed to include Kashmir as a talking point has thrown the Foreign Office into a flurry, scurrying to do damage control and assuage Pakistani outrage. While a welcomed press conference by Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz announced the resumption of Pakistan-India Track II dialogue, which was later changed to back-channel diplomacy, for discussions on Kashmir and outstanding issues, the damage has already been done. Sharif may have to continue receiving dictation from the Pakistan military where its foreign policy towards India is concerned but his inability to appoint a full-time foreign minister after two years of being in office may be too difficult to overlook. A drop in his public ratings and tremendous media attention does little to help his cause.
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