It would be an understatement to say that Pakistan in its current mode is a deeply divided and pathetically polarised state. But it would, equally, be a statement of truth to say that its prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is fighting heavy odds to stay his course of seeking amity and peace with India.
Nawaz was never meant to be controversial. A hand-picked man of Pakistan’s all-powerful “establishment”, Nawaz had been baptised into politics—back in the early 1980s—by the army to toe its line and remain faithful to whatever was scripted for him. Nawaz acted to the scripted role only up to his nurturing years and, as soon as endowed with power at the centre, broke loose and set out to chart his own course.
Those knowing Pakistan’s tortured and meandering history of the past four decades would vouch for it that he lost out to the dreaded “establishment” in each of his two previous stints as PM because he dared to stand up to it.
The first “out”, in 1993, was because he challenged the kingmaker generals at their turf; he thought he could call their kingmaking bluff but lost out. The second “out” came in 1999 when he launched the initiative to build bridges of peace with India and invited then Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Lahore and, in the process, earned the wrath of his Bonapartes who loathed the idea of peace with an “enemy India”. General Musharraf, who had boycotted the Vajpayee visit, pulled the rug from under Nawaz’ feet by embarking on his lunatic Kargil adventure: once again, it was poor Nawaz who paid the price of Musharraf’s Himalayan blunder with his head on the chopping block.
None should’ve blamed the pundits if they had prophesied that Nawaz would be an epitome of once-bitten-twice-shy in his unprecedented third stint in power and stay miles from breaking new ground with India on the diplomatic front.
However, Nawaz seems to have in him an incorrigible gambler instinct, which may seem completely at odds with his training in a family of merchants and entrepreneurs. He has inaugurated his third innings with overtures of peace with India. If anything, he’s totally unapologetic in his insistence that Pakistan doesn’t have an option when it comes to seeking normalcy with its neighbour to the east and must build bridges of peace to live in harmony with its internal and external dynamics.
Nawaz’ votaries debunk those of his critics who opine that in flirting with India he’s providing cannon fodder to his many detractors in the omnipotent “establishment” to bring down his third ministry the way they did the earlier two. They counter that peace with India is no longer an idealist’s dream; it’s a pragmatic move whose time has come. Their man, Nawaz, isn’t a dreamer but a pragmatist who knows, with his impeccable sense of timing, that it’s now or never on the peace front with India.
The Pakistani peaceniks—and let no one exaggerate their numbers; there aren’t too many of them outside the minuscule community of straight-thinkers—feel that while Nawaz deserves to be complimented for abiding by his election campaign promise to normalise ties with India, developments in the Indian camp are also highly commendatory for his initiative.
Even the most die-hard of hawks in Pakistan concede that Narendra Modi—the hawk of hawks in their book—has served a powerful incentive of his own to Nawaz to soldier on the peace front. To them—tight-fisted as they are—Modi’s invite to Nawaz to be the “stellar” guest at his swearing-in in Delhi was an unwitting fillip to Nawaz to carry on his charted course with India.
However, those who’ve had their ears plugged to the ground realities of India and Pakistan know that Modi’s move was neither unwitting nor just a playing-to-the-gallery thing.
Regular readers of this column would vouch for it that this scribe had said it, in so many words, months earlier—when the Modi “mania” was just a straw in the wind—that a resolute and firm-footed “hawk” like Modi would be a more welcome recruit to the cause of South Asian peace than a diffident and wobbly Manmohan Singh perennially looking over his shoulder and stymied by the debilitating one-step-forward-and-two-steps-backward syndrome.
Pundits are rarely complemented by favourable winds. So, I feel vindicated and delighted that PM Modi hasn’t disappointed me at all. His initiative to invite Nawaz to his inaugural stole the thunder from the hawks in Pakistan, while giving Nawaz a boost that he couldn’t have hoped for in his wildest dream. Overtures and follow-up gestures by both leaders since their rendezvous in Delhi are most welcome and heartening.
Symbolism has always had a place of its own in South Asian culture and both leaders seem to be fully conscious of promoting it. Modi’s tweets leave no one in any doubt of his own devotion to his mother and the respect he feels for Nawaz’s fealty to his mother. Modi had presented Nawaz with a shawl for his mother in Lahore, and Nawaz reciprocated with the gift of a sari sent to Delhi for Modi’s mother.
To non-South Asian outsiders these gestures may not seem much but we South Asians know their importance in cultivating trust and enhancing confidence in each other. But Nawaz isn’t having a smooth ride at home on his Indian peace bid. The radicals are accusing him of a sellout on Kashmir and decrying him for taking dictation from Modi on terrorism. This is nonsense; unadulterated humbug, as we all know it.
The jihadists are at odds with him on his latest move to take the battle to the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan following their deadly assault at Karachi airport. Strangely, he’s taking a lot of flak even from a rationalist like Imran Khan, who is, otherwise, fully on board with Nawaz on peace with India.
A smooth sail with India on his peace initiative would be a blessing to Nawaz. In fact, it would be much more. Nawaz can deal with greater equanimity with the menace of Taliban if he doesn’t run into speed-breakers and unseen bumps on the road of peace with India. Needless to remind all and sundry on both sides of the “Divide” that eliminating the cancer of jihadist terrorism in Pakistan is a sine qua non for peace between the two nations and an essential precursor to the dawn of a poverty-free South Asia.
As these lines are written, heavy weights from the Indo-Pak intelligentsia are putting their heads together in Islamabad to chart exactly such a course—under the canopy of the Regional Peace Institute—for alleviating poverty in South Asia. Good luck to them.