Shehbaz Sharif’s peace overture unlikely to move Narendra Modi much

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

Perhaps no Pakistani leader has ever said “Pakistan has learned its lesson” in the context of the three wars with India like Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has done. That is an extraordinary comment whose motivation could stem from a combination of factors.

His comments during an interview with Al-Arabiya TV are quite remarkable considering that they go against the country’s militaristic pride which has never quite reconciled with the defeats after they started the wars.

“Pakistan has learned its lesson. We had three wars with India and the consequences of those wars were more miseries, more unemployment and poverty. Millions were demoted from their level of satisfaction to a low level of satisfaction,” Sharif said.

It is hard to offer a definite analysis on why Sharif felt the need to say something so extraordinary other than saying that it could be a combination of factors, the predominant being his country’s battered economy. It has all but collapsed and is not showing any signs of revival anytime soon other than getting by on international aid. Perhaps there is recognition in his mind about the huge chasm between his country and India when it comes to their economies. According to the World Bank, India’s 2021 economy was $3.18 trillion with GDP per capita of $2256. Contrast that with Pakistan’s GDP of $348.28 billion and per capita of $1505 for the same year. This is a clearly unequal relationship. It has always been.

Rapidly depleting foreign exchange reserves, galloping inflation in the prices food items, especially wheat, coupled with climate disasters have pushed the Sharif government into a tight corner. As if all this was not bad enough the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has delayed its $1.1 billion aid until the next fiscal. For now, they have managed to secure $3 billion in handout from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but there is already disenchantment among Pakistan’s Islamic benefactors over its handling of its domestic affairs, particularly the economy.

As India is on course to becoming the world’s most populous country any time now, replacing China, and with its economy still largely sound, New Delhi does not need anything in particular from Pakistan but the reverse is not necessarily true. Notwithstanding its historic animus against India Islamabad is aware that a good working relationship with New Delhi has some long-term economic benefits once they open up their economies to each other. Unlike China, whose approach is to only fuel sovereign debts of the countries it does business with, especially Pakistan, India is more focused on bilateral trade as a strategy for economic cooperation. It is obvious that in the long-term Pakistan stands to gain through the Indian way of bilateral relations.

However, and there is always a however when it comes to Pakistan, Sharif caveated his conciliatory tone by saying this: “My message to the Indian leadership and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is let’s sit down at the table and have serious and sincere talks to resolve our burning issues, like Kashmir.”

Perhaps realizing that Sharif might have gone a bit too far in saying Pakistan has learned its lesson, his office said after the interview that talks with India would only be possible if New Delhi restored the autonomous status of Kashmir. That was in reference to the Modi government the August, 2019 revocation of Kashmir’s special status guaranteed under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. “Without India’s revocation of this step, negotiations are not possible,” the statement by Sharif’s office said. That effectively shuts the door on any breakthrough.

That was clearly necessitated by wanting to placate Pakistan’s omnipotent military without whose blessings its government cannot make any meaningful progress with India. Since much of the Pakistani military’s predominance in their country’s polity comes from the bugbear of India, any dilution of that whipped-up threat goes against their interests.

In so much as Sharif chose to say his country has learned its lesson, he has opened at least left the door ajar for a revival of bilateral talks. From Modi’s standpoint, it may not mean much because he is doing generally fine domestically without actively pursuing peace with Pakistan.

In fact, with the 2024 general election on the horizon, he has no particular incentive to change the equation of indifference that his government has maintained for quite some time now. Unless he sees a real possibility of a breakthrough that does not involve the status of Kashmir in any significant way, he has next to no reason to respond to Sharif’s overtures.

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