Time for Nawaz Sharif to Put Up or Shut Up

Nawaz SharifMy last post argued that the Indian government should ignore the influential voices urging it to stiff-arm efforts by new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to restart the bilateral détente process.  Now is the time, I emphasized, for New Delhi to assay energetically the depths of his seriousness as well as his capacity to deliver on promises.

That said, it is also incumbent on Sharif to start proving his good faith.  So far, he has been long on sweet-sounding rhetoric about deeper economic engagement but has failed to provide any concrete sign he is willing to take political risks to give it concrete meaning.  A depressing case in point concerns the granting of “most favored nation” trading privileges to India, something that New Delhi extended to Pakistan nearly two decades ago.  The previous government in Islamabad made a good deal of noise about doing this, a politically difficult act that convinced skeptics in the Indian government last year that Pakistani leaders were earnest about seeking better ties.  But Sharif’s predecessor ultimately could not pull the trigger, and now comes news that Sharif’s government is likewise deferring the issue “for the time being.”

Islamabad has reportedly refrained from doing this because of fears that Pakistani companies would be overwhelmed by cheaper Indian goods.  But these businesses have already weathered the commercial competition brought about by the 2006 free trade agreement with China.  Moreover, a World Bank report released just days ago underscores the value of stronger trade links with India.  It notes that:

Completing the trade normalization process with India and granting it MFN status would help Pakistan benefit quickly from the fast growth and large markets. Conservative estimates suggest that bilateral trade flows could multiply at least three times, and most observers agree that the growth-enhancing dynamics that this process would unleash would be even more significant for foreign direct investment (especially information technology and manufacturing), services (including financial and tourism), integrated value chains in manufacturing, and power projects.

Discouraging too is that elements in the Pakistani security establishment have reportedly derailed plans to build cross-border energy connections.  With the country in a severe energy crunch (here and here), Sharif’s government had considered importing electricity from India and an Indian delegation visited Islamabad in June with a concrete offer in hand.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to have judged, correctly in my view, that the peculiar state of civil-military relations in Pakistan does not allow Sharif to put a halt to renewed military tensions along the Line of Control in Kashmir that are now roiling relations.  But at this point, New Delhi has every right to question why Sharif has not yet used his strong political position to back up his nice words with specific actions.  So when he meets Singh on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual conclave later this month, it would be good if Sharif arrives with something more than continued rhetoric.

Sharif can begin proving his bonafides by giving a definitive promise on MFN implementation.  He could couple this with a proposal to set up a joint commission of prominent business leaders and distinguished private citizens to develop further recommendations about expanding cross-border trade and transportation links.  This group could also serve as a useful mechanism for mobilizing political support on both sides for forward movement in the bilateral agenda.

And Sharif would do well to enunciate a new policy on the treatment of Indian fishermen apprehended in disputed territorial waters.  In recent months, Islamabad has been repatriating hundreds of Indian fishermen but only after they have served out their full sentences.  But a better policy would take a page from the U.S. practice on its border with Mexico: After having their photographs and fingerprints taken, and warned that second-time offenders will face stiff penalties, apprehended fishermen should be quickly sent back to India.  (Indians who are still serving their sentences would have their terms immediately commuted.)

This gesture, which should be reciprocated by New Delhi, would earn Islamabad some much-needed goodwill in India, as well as conserve resources that are needed for other budgetary priorities.  And since many of the fishermen are arrested in and around Sir Creek, a disputed 60 mile-long patch of marshland dividing the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh, it might even give new impetus to efforts to resolve this impasse.  Prime Minister Singh has called an agreement on the issue “doable” and many observers believe it is easiest to solve among the territorial contestations bedeviling India-Pakistan relations.

As I’ve noted before, bilateral relations are in for a rough spell in the coming year.  So if Sharif wants his rhetoric to count for something, he needs to move quickly and decisively.

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