Nawaz Sharif’s return to the helm in Islamabad is sparking optimism that a more stable and constructive India-Pakistan relationship is in the offing. But South Asia is a rough-and-tumble neighborhood that regularly eviscerates the best of intentions. Indeed, given the potent brew of pernicious forces acting on bilateral affairs – contiguous but bitterly contested territory, sharp historical animosities, internal frailties vulnerable to outside exploitation, and conflicting national identities – the real wonder is why outright conflict isn’t even more prevalent.
Much has been made of the precedent Sharif set during his last stint as prime minister, when he hosted a landmark summit meeting in Lahore in early 1999 with his then Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The resulting Lahore process gave rise to hopes that a fundamentally new era in bilateral affairs was at hand, though it quickly expired when the Kargil mini-war broke out a few months later. But Sharif has now resurrected its spirit, calling the Lahore process “the roadmap that I have for improvement of relations between Pakistan and India.”
Less noticed but worth noting how Punjab province, Sharif’s political base, stands to benefit from increased trade ties with India. This is particularly so for the Punjab-dominated textiles sector that is the country’s largest manufacturing industry. It’s relevant, too, that his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the province’s chief minister, last year effusively suggested the creation of free trade zones aimed at fostering bilateral exchange and the opening up of supply-chain links between the port city of Karachi and the Indian states of Rajasthan and Punjab. He also proposed establishing a common market along the lines of the European Union – something that Manmohan Singh, the current Indian prime minister, has also famously advocated – and declared that the two countries should now concentrate on waging “a war of economic competition and excellence.” Continue reading