As Shehbaz Sharif takes charge, India, Pakistan adopt a wait-and-watch approach | World News - Hindustan Times
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As Shehbaz Sharif takes charge, India, Pakistan adopt a wait-and-watch approach

Mar 06, 2024 04:40 AM IST

On the Indian side, there is greater caution in dealing with the administration headed by the younger brother of ex-Pakistan premier Shehbaz Sharif.

NEW DELHI: The fragmented result produced by Pakistan’s general election has dampened the prospects for a nascent process to explore the possibility of a re-engagement with India, with both sides now adopting a wait-and-watch approach, people familiar with the matter said.

Pakistan's newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, inspects the honor guard at the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad, on Tuesday (via REUTERS/Pakistan PMO)
Pakistan's newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, inspects the honor guard at the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad, on Tuesday (via REUTERS/Pakistan PMO)

While former premier Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party was widely tipped to form a government on its own with the blessings of the military, the surprisingly strong showing in the election by independent candidates backed by former premier Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has affected this process, the people said on condition of anonymity.

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The personal absence of Nawaz Sharif from the government formed in Islamabad by the PML-N with the backing of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is another factor that went against the calculations that prompted the process of looking at a possible re-engagement. On the Indian side, there is greater caution in dealing with the administration headed by Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, the people said.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted Shehbaz Sharif on his swearing-in following his election as prime minister at a session of Pakistan’s National Assembly on Sunday through a brief post on X. “Congratulations to @CMShehbaz on being sworn in as the Prime Minister of Pakistan,” Modi said in the post.

 

While a response to the greeting from the Pakistani side was awaited, the people cited above said policymakers in New Delhi and Islamabad are expected to take a wait-and-watch attitude towards any process of re-engagement, at least till the completion of India’s election process.

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“You have a coalition government in Islamabad that is facing complex pressures and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is unlikely to act on something as important as re-engaging with India without getting a go-ahead from the Pakistan Army,” one of the people cited above said. “The Indian side can afford to wait and see how things go,” he added.

The two sides, which have not held any structured and sustained talks since the composite dialogue process was snapped because of the 2008 Mumbai attacks carried out by terrorists from Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), have struggled with coming to terms for any possible re-engagement.

“The modus vivendi for any engagement has been an issue – at what level do you engage and what do you discuss?” a second person said.

However, both sides had tentatively looked at the possibility of making a new start, based on the premise that there would be a strong government in Islamabad headed by Nawaz Sharif and that the Modi government would return for a third term after the Indian election, the people said. One of the issues that was looked at was the return of high commissioners to both capitals, they said.

The Indian and Pakistani missions have been headed by the charge d’affaires since Islamabad opted not to send a high commissioner to New Delhi to protest the Indian government’s decision to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in August 2019.

There have also been indications that the Pakistani side is looking at a re-engagement with India. When Pakistan Army chief Gen Asim Munir participated in a closed-door event at a think tank in Washington during his visit to the US in mid-December 2023, he said there was “scope for normalisation” of relations with the Indian side, people familiar with the event said. However, Munir also added that this would depend on India addressing Pakistan’s concerns about the status of Kashmir, they added.

The Indian side, however, has made it clear in recent years that the Kashmir issue is no longer on the table following the scrapping of Article 370. It has also said that there cannot be any talks under the shadow of terrorism.

Away from formal engagements, India and Pakistan have kept back-channel contacts open at the level of senior security officials. There has been a string of meetings in third countries such as Thailand and Oman as part of these contacts, one of the key results of which was the restoration of the ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC) in February 2021.

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