Head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) Nawaz Sharif waves to supporters after his party's victory in general elections in Lahore. AFP photo
Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif made a comeback to power after 14 years on Sunday, in an election victory that was welcomed by India as it raised hopes of better ties between New Delhi and Islamabad.
With counting still on, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) was headed for a win in more than 128 of the 272 directly elected seats of the national assembly, according to projections by local television news channels.
The tally was overwhelming in comparison with what his key rivals – Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf and Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party – were seen winning, around 30-35 each.
The two-time Prime Minister, once jailed and exiled after being ousted in a military coup in 1999, has promised to improve relations with India, including resuming talks on Kashmir and an investigation into the alleged role of Pakistan’s spy agency, ISI, in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
“We will pick the threads from where we left. We want to move toward better relations with India, to resolve the remaining issues through peaceful means, including that of Kashmir,” said the 63-year-old leader whose family moved from Amritsar to Pakistan post partition.
Congratulating Sharif on his "emphatic victory", Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "The people of India welcome your publicly articulated commitment to a relationship between India and Pakistan that is defined by peace, friendship and cooperation. I look forward to working with you and your government." Full text of PM's letter to Sharif
Talks between India and Pakistan to end their decades-old rivalry – rooted primarily in a dispute over Kashmir – were interrupted after Sharif was deposed by then army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Musharraf is widely believed to have been behind the cross-border incursions in Kargil that triggered a mini-war between the two countries.
"Nawaz Sharif is very serious about better relations with India. (President Asif Ali) Zardari was thwarted by the establishment. Being a Punjabi and a mandate from Punjab, Sharif can do much more," says retired Pakistani general Talat Masood.
In his party manifesto, Sharif has said the Lahore accord that he signed in 1999 with then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee remains the touchstone of his India policy. Under the treaty, the neighbours reached a mutual understanding on the development and use of nuclear weapons. Sharif takes great pride in Lahore, seeing it as a personal achievement he must complete.
Lahore is one of the threads of the past he plans to pick up, the other is his vendetta against Pervez Musharraf, the general who wrecked Lahore and overthrew him.
Sharif's promise to reveal all about Kargil is more about getting at Musharraf than about winning Indian trust.
However, normalising relations with India fits in with two elements of the agenda Sharif will pursue in the coming years.
First is granting most-favoured nation status to India and otherwise normalising economic ties.
Sharif shares the view of most civilian politicians that Pakistan's economy has done well out of trade - and India is the one obvious market left to be tapped.
"Sharif understands that if done correctly, Indian imports will be cheaper and help tackle inflation," says Pakistani economist Asad Saeed.
Second is Sharif's campaign statements that civilian control of the military is a must in today's Pakistan. To make the case for this, he has to reduce the threat perception regarding India.
As PM, Sharif may wish to do a lot with India but delivery will be an exercise in patience.
Taking on the army, for example, will be easier said than done. It would mean confronting Punjabi militants like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, groups which, notes Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, he once nurtured and were backed by his Punjab party.
"The military will use Imran Khan and the Taliban against him if he goes too far," believes Rana Banerjee, Pakistan expert at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
The expectation is that Sharif will move stealthily.
He will support existing moves to bring the ISI's activities under civilian scrutiny. On the diplomatic front, he will resurrect the back-channel diplomatic talks that fell into disuse after Musharraf's fall.
Karachi stocks hit all-time high on Sharif win
Festive mood in Nawaz's ancestral village
Pakistan’s ‘yes we can’ moment
Once exiled Nawaz Sharif makes triumphant return
Sharif: The tycoon bidding for third Pakistan term