NEW YORK: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left for home after a week-long stay during which he single-handedly persuaded his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh to take the first step towards improving relations with Pakistan by agreeing on a procedure to defuse tensions along the line of control in Kashmir.
But more important than this agreement was the message he kept sending to the Indians in his statements and interviews to various Indian, Pakistani and US media outlets: let’s put the bitter past behind and “make a new beginning”.
He used his address to the UN General Assembly on Friday to convey the same message, saying that “Pakistan and India can prosper together and the entire region would benefit from our cooperation.”
To Mr Singh, who appeared reluctant to embrace Pakistan so close to the elections, he said: “We stand ready to re-engage with India in a substantive and purposeful dialogue.”
And at a community dinner at a New York hotel, Mr Sharif told the Pakistanis: “We cannot have prosperity unless we have good relations with our neighbours, India and Afghanistan.”
Mr Sharif also used that speech to tell the Pakistani military establishment that the country couldn’t afford to continue to increase its defence budget, so they too should support his moves to improve relations with India. He said he was toppled in 1999 because he was trying to improve relations with India.
When Mr Singh used a joint White House news conference with US President Barack Obama to call Pakistan “an epicentre of terrorism” and declared that any solution to the Kashmir dispute had to be based in Pakistan’s acceptance of the valley as “an integral part of India,” Mr Sharif came under tremendous pressure from some of his aides and the Pakistani media to “give a befitting response”. But he ignored such suggestions, reminding his aides not to forget that Mr Singh’s party was going to an election.
Throughout this period, Mr Sharif focused on the meeting, working quietly with the Indian side on a possible understanding that would promote peace without causing any political damage to him or Mr Singh. They came up with a plan to end clashes along the LoC, hoping that it would stop unnecessary blood-letting in a sensitive area where any mistake can lead to a larger conflict.
The plan worked and the two prime ministers tasked their military officials to “suggest effective means to restore the ceasefire and a way forward to ensure that that remains in force and in place”, as Indian National Security Adviser Shivshanker Menon explained.
The military officials will also “establish a joint mechanism for not only investigation of incidents on the LoC, but also to ensure there is no recurrence of violence”, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jillani added.
While the understanding itself was important, the two briefings also had a pleasant surprise for the Pakistani and Indian media covering the event.
In the past, such briefings were mostly held separately. Officials from both sides ensured that every journalist from the other side was forced out of the room before the briefing began.
It was different this time. Pakistani journalists were treated with cookies and tea as they came to the Indian briefing room and were not asked to leave when the briefing began. And before Mr Menon spoke, Pakistani officials distributed written invitations among Indian journalists, telling them that they were “welcome” to attend a briefing by the Pakistani foreign secretary at a nearby hotel. As Mr Menon’s briefing ended, a group of Pakistani journalists guided their Indian colleagues to the hotel.
But such gestures were not enough to hide ugly realities.
After the Indians left, Pakistani television channels, shown constantly at the Pakistani media room, focused on a rally that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi held hours before the Sharif-Singh meeting, criticising the Indian prime minister for pursuing peace with Pakistan. He conveniently forgot that it was a BJP prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who took forward the dialogue process in 2003-04.
The channels also ran a statement from some militant groups in Pakistan, telling Mr Sharif that he was “betraying the nation” by engaging India in peace talks.Meanwhile, the Indian channels were focusing on a non-issue, Mr Sharif allegedly calling Mr Singh a “dehati budhiya.” Although Pakistani officials strenuously denied the allegation, saying that the remarks were falsely attributed to Mr Sharif, the channels continued to play it up.
The understanding on ending LoC violations also could not hide the fact that both sides were still unwilling to discuss more serious issues. The foremost among such issues is Afghanistan where both India and Pakistan have been vying for influence. The deadline for the 2014 withdrawal of US and Nato combat troops from Afghanistan has further intensified this competition. The Pakistanis fear that India will use its influence in Afghanistan to create trouble in the bordering areas. Indians fear that Pakistan can once again recruit Afghan militants in an armed conflict in Kashmir.
Yet, there were no discussions on Afghanistan in the Sharif-Singh meeting, “although it was mentioned”, as Mr Menon said.
There also was no understanding on the resumption of a composite dialogue process between the two countries. The Indians are believed to have said that they would wait to see if the plan for ending LoC violations worked before committing themselves to the composite dialogue.
Other major issues — Kashmir, Sir Creek and Siachen — were also just mentioned as neither side appeared ready to tackle them at this stage.
Yet, peace was a clear winner on this muggy Sunday morning in New York where India and Pakistan made yet another “new beginning” for peace. If it’s a real beginning or a false start, only time will tell.