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Nawaz Sharif may give Pakistan-India relations a boost

Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, pictured last week, has a record of striving toward improved relations with India.
(K.M. Chaudary, Associated Press)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Indian-Pakistani relations, for years fraught with tension, appear on the surface to have received a boost from the stunning electoral comeback by former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Since Sharif’s decisive victory in the May 11 national elections, he and Manmohan Singh, prime minister of nuclear archrival India, have chatted amicably by phone and have invited each other to visit. Newspapers in both countries buzz with editorials and commentaries about the potential for a ramp-up in economic and political ties.

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But despite the pleasantries, entrenched realities remain that analysts say could temper the likelihood of a Pakistani-Indian friendship.

Sharif, 63, is still a leader with two distinct sides.

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At his core, he’s a deal-making businessman, a wealthy steel magnate who understands the importance of opening Pakistan’s crippled economy to trade with its neighbor, a South Asian powerhouse and one of the world’s leading emerging markets.

But he’s also a conservative Muslim with a reputation for being soft on militants. He was one of the world’s only political leaders to recognize the Afghan Taliban government, doing so in May 1997, eight months after the Islamist group seized power.

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Stronger ties with Pakistan are important to New Delhi, but so is a commitment from the new Sharif government that it will clamp down on militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which India and the West say was responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 160 people.

“Sharif will have to have a very clear policy on militancy and the terrorist organizations,” said Raza Rumi, a senior analyst at the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute. “They are the big threat to his foreign policy initiatives. If he can change that, then there’s a direct impact on India-Pakistan relations.”

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Pakistan and India’s history since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 has been marred by conflict and brinkmanship. The countries have fought three wars in six decades, and remain deadlocked over the fate of Kashmir, the Himalayan region claimed by both countries.

Relations between the nuclear-equipped nations have warmed somewhat over the last couple of years. But crises continue to sidetrack the strengthening of ties.

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In January, a spate of cross-border skirmishes in Kashmir that killed both Pakistani and Indian troops renewed friction. Tension worsened this month when Sarabjit Singh, an Indian man serving a Pakistani prison sentence for spying, died after being beaten by other inmates. The next day, a Pakistani prisoner in an Indian prison was beaten by an Indian inmate and later died. The countries blamed each other for allowing the attacks to take place.

President Asif Ali Zardari, whose ruling Pakistan People’s Party was the big loser in this month’s parliamentary elections, oversaw several steps aimed at rapprochement with India. Among them was an announcement of Pakistan’s intent to grant its eastern neighbor “most favored nation” status, though Pakistani businesses’ concern that the designation would mean more competition has kept Islamabad from implementing the measure. The move would eliminate discriminatory pricing and mutually impose lower tariffs and high import quotas.

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Sharif has a record of striving toward improved relations with India. During his last stint as prime minister, from 1997 to 1999, he talked with his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, about possible solutions to the Kashmir dispute and inaugurated a “friendship” bus line from the Indian border to Lahore.

The relationship-building came to a halt in 1999, when Sharif’s then-army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, secretly sent troops into a region of India-occupied Kashmir called Kargil, triggering a three-month military conflict. Sharif has maintained that he was unaware of Musharraf’s plans.

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Later that year, Musharraf seized power from Sharif, who lived in exile in Saudi Arabia until 2007, when he returned to Pakistan.

Sharif’s relationship with Pakistan’s military leadership will largely dictate how successful he is in drawing his country closer to India. The military still holds sway over relations with India, and if it felt threatened by his agenda, it could derail it, analysts say.

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Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani allowed Zardari’s administration to nurture closer trade ties with India, and Pakistani commentators viewed Kayani’s sit-down with Sharif over the weekend as a sign that the military leader wanted a positive start to their relationship.

Kayani, however, is expected to retire this year and it isn’t known whether his successor will take the same approach to India.

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Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter said in a briefing this month that unless Sharif and his team “come up with a comprehensive or coherent approach to India that involves not only the power players among the civilians, but among the military, there may be limits to what they can do.”

Another factor working against rapid improvement in relations is India’s upcoming election, which must be held before May 2014. The Congress Party-led coalition government has presided over a string of corruption scandals and a struggling economy that has weakened its ability to make bold moves.

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Singh, 80, reportedly sees improved India-Pakistan relations as a potential legacy after years in office. In a letter shortly after Sharif’s election, Singh invited Sharif to visit India at a mutually convenient time.

“I look forward to working with you and your government to chart a new course and pursue a new destiny in the relations between our countries,” he wrote.

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But Singh has often gotten ahead of his government, notably at a 2009 meeting in Egypt when he was criticized at home for extending a hand to Islamabad. India’s largest opposition party this month made clear its resistance to rapid rapprochement.

“Pakistan has the excitement of a new government, India has the fatigue of an outgoing government,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor in chief of the Indian Express newspaper. “There will be incidents, provocations. Whether India will be patient enough to deal with them in an election year remains to be seen.”

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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Rodriguez reported from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Magnier reported from New Delhi.


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