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Will Modi and Sharif revive Lahore?
   
 
 
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Will Modi and Sharif revive Lahore?

 
Monday, 30 June 2014 09:02
 
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by Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra (EPOS)
EPOS Insights

 

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif was one of the first leaders to congratulate Narendra Modi when his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the elections for Indian legislature in May 2014. Modi invited Sharif to attend the swearing in ceremony at the forecourt of Indian Presidential palace in New Delhi on 26 May 2014. The national and international media widely covered the interactions between the two prime ministers.

Fifteen years ago, in 1999, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had visited Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, on the invitation of Prime Minister Sharif. During the visit both the leaders had signed the Lahore Declaration to promote bilateral relations. Sharif and Vajpayee shared a vision of peaceful and stable South Asia, only to be scuttled few months later due to the Kargil war and the military coup in Pakistan.

Will Modi and Sharif revive the spirit of Lahore?

Modi and Sharif share many common traits. Sharif is a businessman turned politician and Modi is known for his pro-business policies during his twelve year-old rule in the Western India state of Gujarat. Sharif returned to power after a gap of 14 years in 2013. Modi’s political party, BJP will be in power after a gap of 10 years. Both Sharif and Modi are in their early 60s. They are young, dynamic and perceived effective. Their support base differs from their previous regimes – the rule of Pakistan People’s Party suffered from bickering and opacity and the rule of Indian National Congress led United Progressive Alliance suffered from lethargy. Modi and Sharif enjoy a strong support base with an absolute majority in their legislatures and are capable of taking strong decisions.

But Modi is not Vajpayee. While Vajpayee was popular in Pakistan for his peace overtures, Modi is known for the communal riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002 during his rule. The riots killed more Muslims than Hindus. Though Indian courts have not found any evidence to convict him, he continues to be perceived anti-Muslim by sections of people. Modi throughout his electoral campaign stayed away from invoking religion and mainly won on a plank of development. His party gained 282 seats in 543-member lower house, a feat no party achieved since 1984. If his electoral utterances are taken seriously, Modi as Prime Minister of India will take an inclusive approach towards development and towards developing relations with Pakistan.

During an interview early this month to an Indian TV channel Modi argued that Pakistan must rein in extremist networks to revive the peace process. The hardliners in Pakistan dislike Modi and will use every opportunity to create havoc in Indo-Pak relations. It will be no surprise if the extremists in Pakistan repeat a 2008 Mumbai style attack to invoke a hard line response from the new government. Unlike his mentor, Vajpayee, who during the Kargil War of 1999, ordered the troops not to cross the Line of Control (the de facto border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir), Modi may react differently. Any hijacking of foreign policy by the hardliners in India and Pakistan brings to mind the horrors of war between the two nuclear weapon powered nations.

Modi and Sharif will prefer to cooperate than to conflict as the initial exchange between the two leaders indicates. In his reply to Sharif’s wishes, Modi talked about poverty, a common problem in the region, and his resolve to fight it. Both are known for pro-business and pro-development policies and this can be a common ground for developing bilateral relations. Modi during his rule in Gujarat made high profile invitations to business houses for investment. Some of the top Indian business houses invested in Gujarat during his rule. When Tata’s famous low cost car Nano’s proposed factory was stalled in the eastern state of West Bengal, Modi invited the industrial unit to Gujarat.

The businessman turned politician Sharif will be interested to cultivate the shared interest in bilateral trade. Pakistan in December 2013 postponed the granting of most favored nation status to India. Sharif may now consider the time ripe for granting the status. This can be a welcome gesture to start with. Before India’s elections, Sharif in February had made the case for flexible cross-border trade. Hence, it is likely that economics will dominate the relations between the two neighbors with eventual easing of tensions in areas of conflict such as Kashmir.

The lack of bilateral trust is a major roadblock against peace. Modi and Sharif can address the deficit. It is generally during election times that politicians ratchet up religious and nationalistic passions to win the electorate. As both the leaders are well ensconced in power, they can use the opportunity to nurture close relations.

Barring the 2002 scar, Modi’s image in India is that of a transparent and strong leader. Similarly, Sharif’s image in Pakistan is not sullied as that of some of his predecessors. Though adorned the post of prime minister for a decade, Modi’s predecessor Singh did not possess the actual power of the office as it was concentrated outside. Modi will not suffer from that handicap. He will be able to take decisions and implement them.

During his election campaigns Modi harped on his vision of taking along all Indians to build a strong and developed India. If Modi is guided by this inclusive vision, it will be on expected lines that India-Pakistan relations will gain meat, and Modi will follow in footsteps of his mentor. But, if Modi cavorts to hard line tunes of sections of his party, the bilateral relations may plunge further low. The new mandate provides Modi the opportunity to bring on track the derailed relations between India and Pakistan. In this peace tango, Sharif can be his matching partner.

 

*Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a Fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development at University of Massachusetts Boston. His edited volume "Conflict and Peace in Eurasia" was published by Routledge in 2013

Last modified on Friday, 06 May 2016 07:35
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