Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is familiar with the triumphs and setbacks of political life. He had two tumultuous stints as prime minister in the 1990s, weathered a long exile in Saudi Arabia after attempting to depose General Pervez Musharraf as army chief before returning to power in 2013. Mr Sharif’s India policy has also never proceeded as planned. For long a proponent of good bilateral ties he saw the landmark Lahore Declaration undermined — or so he claims — by Gen Musharraf’s misadventure in Kargil. In recent months, he has seen New Delhi call off talks twice after being invited for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in. It is a measure of his longstanding links with the Indian establishment that such disruptions were worked out and Mr Modi was able to drop by for an unannounced visit to Lahore last month.
The attack at Pathankot, however, puts Mr Sharif in a difficult spot much as it enrages the public and his interlocutors in India. Not only does the attack potentially jeopardise the prospect of quickly enhancing economic ties that Pakistan is keen on, it is a blow to Mr Sharif’s authority that has both domestic and bilateral ramifications. The attack suggests that non-State actors and elements in the Pakistani military establishment can, at any time, unravel his diplomatic initiatives should they choose. Not long ago, Mr Sharif had to deal with domestic instability and political gridlock through the protests staged by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, which many alleged were supported by the military. Now Mr Sharif’s outreach to India is being threatened by machinations staged either by his opponents or those implacably opposed to bilateral rapprochement.
India cannot expect forward movement under these conditions. Notwithstanding his keenness for better ties and his domestic constraints, Mr Sharif now needs to demonstrate to Mr Modi — who has taken risks of his own and rallied the BJP and the RSS to support engagement — that he is capable of taking action against the perpetrators of Pathankot and 26/11 Mumbai. A large part of the India-focused terror networks are in his home province of the Punjab. Rather than merely attempting to contain terrorists through political means, which is clearly not an airtight strategy, Mr Sharif has to be seen as taking on the LeT and the JeM more directly. He has done the right thing by calling Mr Modi to reassure him of support while investigating the Pathankot assault. There has to be a certain measure of urgency in meeting that commitment and punishing the perpetrators. Else, India will soon question the point of bilateral contact.