Nawaz Sharif’s participation in Narendra Modi’s inauguration may be the first time a Pakistani prime minister has attended such celebrations in India, but it is just one of many occasions that have been billed as an opportunity for laying the foundations of a new relationship between India and Pakistan.
In 1950, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan travelled to Delhi and signed the Liaquat-Nehru pact, which was expected to resolve the issues created by the violent Partition of 1947 that gave birth to Pakistan. But the optimism about the agreement died within a year with the assassination of its Pakistani signatory. Pakistan went through several years of political instability while the army gained influence in policymaking.
Then, once General (later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan assumed the reins of power directly in a coup d’etat in 1958, it was argued that a Pakistani military leader was better positioned to normalise relations with India than the weak politicians who preceded him. Pakistan’s participation in US-led military alliances was also meant to give the new country sufficient self-confidence in dealing with a larger, more powerful and ostensibly hostile neighbour.
Ayub Khan said that only two issues caused friction between India and Pakistan. One related to the division of the Indus waters, which was resolved by the US-backed and World Bank-funded Indus Waters Treaty. The other, according to Ayub, was Jammu and Kashmir, and the field marshal started the 1965 war hoping to find its final solution.
Another war, in 1971 over Bangladesh, resulted in a massive military defeat for Pakistan and the loss of half its territory. Ayub’s successor as military dictator, Yahya Khan, was forced to relinquish power to civilian Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It was presumed that now a more coherent Pakistani state and a triumphant India would find lasting peace.
At Shimla, in 1973, Indira Gandhi purported to show magnanimity. The Ceasefire Line in Kashmir became the Line of Control and a carefully worded agreement committed both countries to the peaceful resolution of disputes. But the Simla Accord virtually fell by the wayside after the military coup of 1977 that led to Bhutto’s judicial murder two years later.
General Zia-ul-Haq and Morarji Desai spoke of peace amid Western media commentary that the two ostensibly pro-US leaders could accomplish what left-leaning Indian governments under the Congress could not. In the end, Zia lasted in power for almost 11 years, but good relations between Pakistan and India did not.
When Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister in 1988, we heard the “new beginning” mantra again. India was now led by Rajiv Gandhi, and the two young prime ministers were expected to transcend the bitterness of Partition, of which neither had any personal memory. But the Pakistani establishment cut short Benazir’s tenure while stepping up jihad for the liberation of Kashmir.
Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi civilian originally backed by the army, was supposed to be the new miracle worker. But he was pushed out of office by the establishment within three years of his election. Sharif was succeeded by Benazir Bhutto for three years, only to return to office after another palace coup.
By the time Sharif returned to office in 1997, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had helped install the Taliban in power in Kabul and myriad jihadi groups were seen as challenging India’s might in Kashmir.
Once Pakistan tested nuclear weapons following India’s nuclear tests in 1998, the rationalists argued that a Nixon-to-China moment had arrived. If only Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would travel to Pakistan and talk to the Muslim nationalist Pakistani leader, a modus vivendi between the two countries could be found.
Vajpayee did indeed travel to Lahore, assuring Pakistanis of India’s acceptance of their country and its nuclear status. But that did not prevent General Pervez Musharraf from plotting and executing the war in Kargil and subsequently taking over the reins of power in Islamabad. Musharraf kept talks with India going under the shadow of both nuclear weapons and terrorism. But details of the elaborate deal his emissary is said to have worked out with Satish Lamba are nowhere to be found in Pakistan’s Foreign Office since the general lost power in 2008.
Civilian President Asif Zardari’s vision of regional integration was blown to pieces by Lashkar-e-Toiba’s terrorist attack in Mumbai in November 2008 within a couple of months of his election. Now, hopes are being pinned on renewed dialogue under Nawaz Sharif, who does not need to negotiate the complexities of Pakistan’s coalition politics, unlike Zardari.
Hope springs eternal and engagement is always better than giving up in despair. But it is important to understand the reason for the historic failure of efforts aimed at fostering friendly neighbourly ties between India and Pakistan.
There are many logical reasons for why and how India-Pakistan ties can be normalised. It is psychological, not logical, factors that have held the relationship back so far. As long as Pakistan’s establishment continues to paint India as an existential threat and a permanent enemy in the minds of its people, no Pakistani leader — civilian or military — can embrace the Canada-US model in India-Pakistan relations.
Although Indians are now focused more on their internal development, they have a long way to go in reassuring Pakistanis that their acceptance of a united Pakistan is final and irreversible.