The election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was met with mixed feelings in Pakistan. A controversy erupted over whether Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in Delhi.
But Sharif over-ruled objections from the army high command and flew in to Delhi to attend the event. Since then, the army has been unhappy with, what it privately calls, Sharif’s pro-India tilt.
There were expectations in Pakistan that the Modi government would continue with its anti-Pakistan rhetoric but that did not happen. "Instead, what we have seen is that the Modi government has been measured in its policies and statements on Pakistan," says Talat Masood, a foreign policy expert. But there is a feeling, he added, that the Modi government was waiting and watching. "Things may go from bad to worse soon," Masood cautioned.
For his part, Sharif announced a series of goodwill gestures to create an atmosphere for talks between the two countries. He announced the release of 151 Indian fishermen jailed in Pakistan and for the first time in several years, allowed the release of boats captured along with the fishermen.
But on many issues the Sharif government’s hands remain tied. For example, despite the initial progress on the trial of the seven accused in the Mumbai attacks, there is a delay caused by a number of reasons. Clearly, the military is reluctant to move ahead with the trial without any reciprocal measure from India.
"The military continues to keep a check on the elected government when it comes to bilateral relations with India," says a foreign policy analyst. The current political crisis in the country, he says, has its roots in a number of issues which include the reluctance of Sharif to let the military be the sole arbiter of Pakistan’s policy on relations with India.
Sharif is keen to move ahead on a number of issues including trade. But his advisers say that the Indian side is not keen to move ahead without a commitment from Pakistan on terrorism. The Indian side wants more guarantees from Pakistan that it is serious prevent infiltration by terrorists into India.
On the ground, among ordinary citizens, there is renewed hope and expectation. Muhammad Sajid, a resident of Karachi, says that he hopes things will improve between the two countries. "Our interest in India is to be allowed to travel freely with least hindrance. In the 70’s and 80’s it was easier to get an Indian visa and travel. Now things are very difficult," he said. Sajid says that that were expectations with a BJP government in India and a PML-N government in Pakistan, "a lot of progress could be made on travel issues as well as trade."
Sajid also talked about how he hoped to see more Indian goods in Pakistani markets. "We get Indian brands but they are all made in UAE," he said. Other than that, a lot of Indian products are smuggled into the country. "We need to trade more with India as China has destroyed our market and flooded it with cheap products. So the argument that Indian products will affect the local industry does not hold true anymore."
But major irritants continue to dog the bilateral relationship. The public statements of JuD leader Hafiz Saeed and its continued visible presence during relief work in disaster zones fly in the face of Sharif’s India engagement policy. "The JuD is controlled by the army and Sharif has tried several times to put Hafiz Saeed behind bars but has been unable to do so," says analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.
So despite Modi’s new beginning, in Pakistan the mood remains the same as the elected civilian government battles with the army and the establishment to get concessions in issues within the country as well as its relations with its neighbours and other important countries like the US.
Imtiaz Ahmad is a Pakistan-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal