They couldn’t be more like each other. Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif—contemporary South Asia’s two leading political actors—have a lot in common that oddly makes them a cool pair without necessarily being birds of a feather.
Both were born after the “Great Divide” that partitioned India into two; Nawaz two or three years before Modi. Both, thus, carry no baggage the rancorous period of South Asian history that truncated the subcontinent.
Neither has claims on fame by virtue of belonging to an elite family that has hogged political centre for generations and decades in both countries: the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India and the Bhuttos in Pakistan.
Both have reached political stardom from relatively humble backgrounds. Modi is an epitome of rags-to-riches; Nawaz’ ambitious father started off as a middle class industrialist but managed to induct his sons into politics by pandering to Pakistan’s power-dispensing khakis. Both are pragmatists to the hilt, rather than being demagogic tacticians—a hallmark of most South Asian politicians. Modi earned his laurels by turning his native Gujarat into an economic powerhouse; Nawaz made a name for himself by lending primacy to economy over politics, trade over sabre-rattling; his younger sibling, Shehbaz, the chief minister of Punjab, has turned his fief into a model of socio-economic dynamism.
Surprising to many a political pundit, Modi made a smart move, virtually within hours of becoming India’s undisputed new leader, that extended Nawaz an olive branch but also tested him no ends. It was tactically suave of India’s PM-elect to invite his Pakistani counterpart to his inauguration, diplomatically correct, and innocuous as far as the host was concerned.
But it wasn’t innocuous for the guest. It was a Catch-22; he was damned if he declined the invite; he was damned, if he did honour it, because for the hard-liners and trouble-mongers who have made careers in India-bashing Modi’s invite was like a red rag.
Nawaz couldn’t have dreamed being put to a litmus test by Modi so unexpectedly. It looked like the new Indian leader was taking him up on his claim that he wanted to have a relationship of peace and harmony with India that would help both countries focus their resources to uplift hundreds of millions of their poor out of the rut. But, he couldn’t be unmindful of GHQ whose generals have fancied nothing better than locking horns with an “enemy India” and with whom Nawaz isn’t quite having a cordial equation. On top of it, he could ill-afford to ignore the bigots and ultra-fanatic clerics—the likes of Hafiz Saeed of Jamat-ud-Dawah, or erstwhile Lashkar-e-Taiba—instantly branding peace with Modi as a great “betrayal”.
In the end, however, Nawaz made the right decision to honour PM Modi’s invitation with his presence at the oath-taking in Delhi on May 26. He came to Delhi with a full retinue of minions, which prompted some grieving Toms of Pakistani media to quip that Nawaz was behaving like a vassal paying his obeisance to India’s new Moghul. They couldn’t be more pathetic.
The protocol extended to Nawaz in Delhi suggested even to outside observers that he was treated by Modi as someone more equal than others in the galaxy of SAARC leaders who were invited. Nawaz was the star of the show in Delhi; the exclusive meeting of the two PMs on May 27 attested to the extra courtesies extended him and fully played up to his star billing.
That Modi and Nawaz have a lot in common was given a hefty boost by none other than Modi himself in his tweets following his tete-a-tete with Nawaz. The Indian leader talked of his 90-year-old mother’s blessings for him and then mentioned Nawaz making it to Lahore every weekend to be with his 90-plus mother.
All this melding of personality traits of Modi and Nawaz raise the common sense question: with so much going between them, do they have it in them to come to grips with the logjam that has stymied the growth of good neighbourly relations between the South Asian twins and really turn a new leaf between them?
Many a commentator concurs that fate has propelled India and Pakistan to a cusp where a historic opportunity beckons them. Opportunities, as history tells us, come to a tryst with countries and neighbours not too often. So, it takes but only bold and imaginative leaders to seize the tide in their favour—and the favour of their peoples—and conquer the odds.
Both India and Pakistan, by sheer historical coincidence, are at a crossroads where they can together chart a course leading their peoples to a better tomorrow. They have leaders enjoying a powerful popular mandate, a point Nawaz rubbed in in particular in Delhi. He has been in power for just one year, and Modi has just stepped into the sanctum. So time is in their favour. Modi is in an unassailable position. Even Nawaz, though looking over his shoulder once too often to make sure GHQ is in tow, is in command on a firm footing.
The trapdoor that both need to watch out for, and one that has often devoured many efforts at peace-building between them, is the one hurled open by hard-liners on both sides. Nawaz acted boldly by freeing 151 Indian prisoners—most of them fishermen—on the eve of his Delhi visit. India followed suit five days later with the release of 37 Pakistani prisoners. This symbolic gesture is welcome.
Nawaz angered his fire-belching hardliners by not mentioning the K (Kashmir) word in Delhi. But what angered them even more was that he didn’t bother to see any leader from the Indian side of Kashmir in his two days in Delhi. To the radicals, it was a sacrilege and “betrayal” of the practice routinely observed by visiting Pakistani leaders in Delhi.
Nawaz has summed up his Delhi visit as “a great moment and a great opportunity” to reach out to each other. He has virtually gone out on a limb to assure his freshman Indian counterpart that he’s prepared to take risks and ready to pick up the thread from where it was left off, in 1999, when he played host to another BJP PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in Lahore and signed the historic Lahore Declaration. Delhi and Lahore have made glorious contributions in the millennium of Hindu-Muslim interaction and history in the subcontinent. Will they write another glorious chapter in its modern history? Will Modi and Nawaz gel enough to make it possible? History waits with bated breath.
Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani diplomat.