Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accepted on Saturday an invitation to attend the inauguration of Indian Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi, a first between the nuclear-armed rivals that could help set the tone of engagement as the two leaders seek to improve troubled ties.
Sharif’s decision comes in the face of stiff opposition from hardliners, including the Pakistan military, signaling that he was willing to expend political capital to try and match Modi’s bold first step aimed at rebuilding ties.
"There will be a bilateral meeting on the sidelines between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Mr. Modi," said Mohyuddin Wani, the joint secretary of the Pakistan Prime Minister's office.
"Mr Sharif will also be calling on the Indian President."
Sharif’s response came after a meeting between Pakistani chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, and Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, on Thursday in which the latter is said to have explained the positive outcomes of such a visit to the general. Shahbaz is Nawaz’s brother and confidante.
The Pakistan prime minister is likely to push hard to make his visit substantive beyond the symbolism of attending Modi’s oath-taking ceremony on Monday. He is expected to return home Tuesday afternoon.
In contrast to its Indian counterpart’s lukewarm enthusiasm, Pakistan’s foreign ministry lobbied hard for the visit. The Pakistani High Commissioner in India, Abdul Basit, had strongly recommended that Sharif accept Modi’s invitation. This view was seconded by Sharif’s advisor on foreign affairs and national security, Sartaj Aziz.
Sartaj Aziz is among those who reportedly sees the visit as a “golden opportunity” to end the past one year freeze in high-level contacts -- and do so without any overt concessions. Aziz, Fatimi, the secretary to the prime minister and Pakistan’s foreign secretary would be accompanying Sharif.
Sharif took two days to respond as he sought a consensus over his visit to India. At least two members of his cabinet, interior minister Chaudhry Nisar ali Khan and special assistant on foreign affairs Tariq Fatimi, had expressed doubts about Sharif visiting India.
Their concern was that the visit would add become another source of conflict between the prime minister and the chief of army staff. Already, the civilian and military leaderships in Pakistan are slowly moving towards a showdown over the banning of the country’s most popular news channel, Geo TV.
The army wants Geo TV shut down after the channel accused the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence of trying to kill its top news anchor, Hamid Mir, in Karachi in April. Nawaz Sharif, who enjoys good relations with the channel, has declined to do so. This comes in the aftermath of a larger battle between the civilian and military leaderships over whether to hold peace talks with the insurgent Tehreek e Taliban.
Indian diplomats, however, are uneasy with Modi’s decision. Over the past two years, India has declined to resume the Indo-Pakistan dialogue until there was further movement on the trials of the accused in the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai. Prime Minister Sharif has held out for dialogue to be renewed without conditions.
Some Indian security experts see the delay in Sharif’s response as a tactical necessity of the Pakistani army. Pakistan expert Rana Banerjee, formerly number two of the Research and Analysis Wing, says the Pakistan army probably only wanted an acknowledgement of their authority.
”They have been consulted and asked to provide clearance,” he said. “This is what they wanted.”
Sharif came to power last year promising to rebuild relations with India, especially though trade, but has been under pressure to toughen his stance from hardliners at home, particularly within the army.
In India too, Modi is seen as a hardliner on national security issues, but his unexpected move to invite regional leaders to his inauguration, including Sharif, has been widely hailed as a bold opening gambit for a new government.
Both leaders are proponents of free markets, feeding some hopes that they can build on their common focus on economic diplomacy.