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Pakistan: Could Shehbaz Sharif normalize ties with India?

S Khan in Islamabad
March 15, 2024

Indian PM Narendra Modi has congratulated Shehbaz Sharif on becoming the head of Pakistan's government, prompting hopes for a diplomatic thaw. But Sharif would face massive obstacles in reaching out to New Delhi.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif delivers a speech at the start of a Pakistan's Resilience to Climate Change conference in Geneva on January 9, 2023
Sharif is reliant on the Pakistani military for supportImage: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Pakistan has formed a new government led by Shehbaz Sharif — and the message sent to Sharif by India's Narendra Modi, though brief and simple, felt like a sign of changing times after years of strained ties and occasional cross-border violence.

"Congratulations to [Shehbaz Sharif] on being sworn in as the prime minister of Pakistan," Modi wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Sharif responded days later with an equally curt post, thanking Modi for his "felicitations."

But this was enough to get people talking, including diplomats beyond the borders of the two South Asian nations. Following Modi's message, the US said it would "welcome productive and peaceful talks between India and Pakistan."

The exchange comes after Sharif's brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, also made conciliatory gestures in recent months. Some circles are already speculating if the new Pakistani prime minister is preparing steps to normalize diplomatic ties with New Delhi.

Pakistan's military wields control over foreign policy

Skeptics point to Pakistan's military and the power they wield over the country's foreign policy. Top military leaders traditionally oppose rapprochements with India, and the military's current stance does not give much hope. And with Shehbaz Sharif heavily reliant on the army to stay in power following a controversial election, the new head of government is unlikely to do anything that would go against their wishes.

Pakistan lawmakers elect Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister

Karachi-based analyst Tauseef Ahmed Khan believes Shehbaz Sharif would simply not dare upset his military backers.

"He has even handed over internal policy to the military, then how can he take any initiative on the foreign affairs front?" he told DW.

But Noor Fatima, an academic at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, is more optimistic. She told DW that the prime minister can try holding out an olive branch to India by involving the military into the effort.

"If he can take the army into confidence, he can take steps to normalize ties, otherwise it is difficult," she said.

Can Sharif replicate his brother's policy?

The prime minister's older brother, Nawaz Sharif, was seen as very assertive during his own time in office. Nawaz Sharif defied the military by having then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visit Pakistan in 1999 — just one of his attempts to normalize ties with Pakistan's archrival. He again stunned military generals by welcoming Modi to the wedding of his granddaughter in late 2015.

But while Nawaz made his reputation by being defiant and standing up for civilian supremacy in politics, his younger brother Shehbaz is seen as mild. Any attempt to follow in Nawaz's footsteps would be an even harder battle. Moreover, the chasm between the two sides has arguably grown wider since Nawaz's day.

Retired Pakistani diplomat Maleeha Lodhi told DW that India was to blame for strained ties, especially due to New Delhi's "refusal to discuss Kashmir" after making unilateral changes in the region.

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While it was true that some of the previous Pakistani governments were "more amenable to engaging with India," this was "always reciprocal" at the time.

"Today there are many obstacles to normalizing ties with Delhi, not easy to overcome," she said.

Another line of attack for Imran Khan

Even if Sharif managed to get the military onboard, he would still need to contend with Pakistan's public opinion.

When Nawaz Sharif tried to reach out to India between 2013 and 2017, he was dubbed as traitor by former Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Right-wing parties have also opposed such normalization, including the party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The one-time cricket star has accused Shehbaz of stealing his PTI party mandate through massive vote rigging in the February election. Khan and his allies are likely to call out Sharif if he takes reconciliatory steps toward New Delhi, and accuse him of "selling out" Pakistan's interests in the Kashmir dispute, according to former Pakistani ambassador Husain Haqqani.

"Pakistan would have to acknowledge India's concerns over jihadi terrorism and India might have to offer the Shahbaz Sharif government a face-saver," Haqqani, currently a scholar at Washington's Hudson Institute, told DW.

Can the US open door for talks?

Looking outside Pakistan, it seems most major powers want India and Pakistan to normalize relations, Haqqani said. And some of them, like the US and the Arab Gulf countries, wield immense influence that could be used to pressure the Pakistani government. Specifically, the South Asian country is heavily reliant on remittances sent by Pakistani laborers working in the Gulf and on international monetary institutions that tend to help states friendly to the US and the West.

If the US were to put pressure on the army, it could pave the way for opening some sorts of talks, said analyst Tauseef Ahmed Khan.

"In that situation Shehbaz could be emboldened and might take initiative to resume some sort of talks with India," he added.

What challenges await Pakistan's next government?

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, believes hopes for reconciliation with India should be kept low. He told DW that Sharif would take a massive risk with a friendly signal toward New Delhi, even if he somehow managed to overcome all obstacles inside his own country.

"New Delhi would likely rebuff him, which would damage him even more politically," he said.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

Correction, March 16, 2024: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. DW apologizes for the error.