NEW DELHI— It was 14 years ago when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister in Islamabad that Pakistan and India initiated the process of normalizing their ties. With the veteran leader's party once again set to gain a legislative majority in Pakistan, hopes are high in India that efforts to ease the decades-long animosity between the two rival nations will get a major boost.
As election results emerged indicating a victory for Nawaz Sharif's political party, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh extended an invitation to him to visit India, saying he hopes to chart a new course for their relationship.
The Indian prime minister had reason to reach out to the man set to emerge as Pakistan’s next civilian leader - Sharif has emphasized that he intends to pick up the remnants of a peace process he began with India in 1999.
In the intervening years, efforts by the two countries to move past their decades-long animosity have had their setbacks.
But Indian analysts are confident that under Sharif’s stewardship, things will get better. Lalit Mansingh, a former foreign secretary in New Delhi, calls the former prime minister the “best bet for India”.
“He is somebody with whom we have a degree of comfort because India has dealt with him, has had good results with negotiations when he was in power, so it is better to deal with him than deal with somebody new and inexperienced. The election victory is quite convincing, therefore he will have much more confidence in speaking for Pakistan when he negotiates with India,” Mansingh said.
Indian officials are hoping for some positive signals in the coming months. For a start, New Delhi wants Pakistan to boost bilateral economic ties by ushering in a liberalized trading regime. Pakistan has not yet implemented a commitment to give India Most Favored Nation trading status -- a move that many hope will now happen.
But while economic ties may get a push, improving diplomatic relations could be far more challenging.
Uday Bhaskar, a strategic affairs analyst, cautions that Sharif’s ability to develop better ties with India will be contingent on his relationship with the military, which he says still makes key strategic decisions for the country.
“Three issues that concern India -- Kashmir, the support to groups that are engaged in terror activities against India, and the management of nuclear weapons and missiles -- all three of these are outside of the purview of the civilian leadership of Pakistan. So unless he is able to bring about a certain rearrangement in the distribution of power in Pakistan and establish his own primacy, I think we should wait and watch,” Bhaskar stated.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars and come close to a fourth. Earlier this year, a war of words erupted between them as tensions spiked between their militaries along the disputed Kashmir border.
But there is some optimism that this time around, the Pakistani military may not thwart peace overtures with India.
Bharat Karnad at New Delhi’s independent Center for Policy Research said the Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani is not likely to be a stumbling block.
“I think General Kayani has given ample evidence that he means to redirect his military’s efforts towards internally containing terrorist outfits and eliminating terrorism. He has made that his top priority. He is being very realistic and I think he needs to be commended for it. So this will dovetail with Nawaz Sharif’s political intent to have a rapproachement with India,” said Karnad.
In India, meanwhile, support for strengthening peace with Pakistan cuts across the political spectrum. That is important because New Delhi too heads into elections next year and could see a change in leadership.
Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party leader Prakash Javedkar recalls that the 1999 peace process with Nawaz Sharif began under a BJP-led government in New Delhi. He said he will be happy if that process is taken forward. He expressed happiness that "democracy has flourished" in Pakistan. A strong, democratic government in Pakistan will be good for both countries, Javedkar said.
That is the hope of many in India. A shared culture has facilitated linkages between their citizens since Nawaz Sharif was last in power, but their political divide has not been easy to bridge.