Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s appeal for talks with India in an almost pleading tone, conveyed publicly through an interview to the Dubai-based pan-Arab television station Al Arabiya, which came to light earlier this week, suggests that the Pakistan leader is adrift as far as decent advice on foreign policy goes. It is hard to consider it with any seriousness.
Mr Sharif was on a two-day visit to the UAE on January 12 — incidentally his third to that country since April 2022 when he came to head the government in controversial circumstances. Pakistan is in a tailspin and money is what its PM is after to shore up the economy as well as his badly rattled government. Mr Sharif revealed in the interview that when he met UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, he requested the Abu Dhabi ruler to get him to the talking table with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The nature of the Emirati leader’s response is not known. New Delhi is hardly likely to respond for talks made through a television interview, especially since it has no pressing need to do so. India has cordial, wide-spectrum, ties with the UAE. On India-Pakistan affairs, this country has underlined strictly bilateral dealings since the 1971 war and the Simla Agreement. Nevertheless, should there be an approach by the UAE President, it is bound to be met with due courtesy. It is unlikely the UAE would go public with its interlocution with India in the Pakistan context. In that case, an open response to PM Sharif may not be forthcoming from New Delhi.
Although Mr Sharif says Pakistan has learnt its “lesson” following three wars with India, which, according to him, hit the economy hard, and he now “sincerely” seeks peace so that his country may get on with life, it is odd that he should make the talks he pleads for conditional on India rolling back its decision to effect constitutional changes in J&K in August 2019. Whatever the merits of that decision, it is hardly for the Pakistan PM to comment on it even if he has domestic compulsions to do so. More, in the Al Arabiya interview, the Pakistan leader reminds the journalist that India and Pakistan are both nuclear powers and rhetorically asks where nuclear war would get either country except to “annihilation”. There is an innocent amateurishness in the way the issue was framed out of the blue, and yet it would be seen here as bluster.
In light of the extreme pressure domestic politics has brought on the PM of our neighbouring coutnry, with threat looming of his ouster through a possible motion of no confidence leading on to a fresh national election, it is hard to see if New Delhi would have reacted with positive intent even if other circumstances were right. For this reason Mr Sharif’s proposal is no less than intriguing. India also finds itself in a year packed with state elections leading on to the Lok Sabha poll next year. The time for talks with Pakistan is just not right in light of the stasis reached in ties. After the Pulwama attack in early 2019 followed by the Balakot “surgical strike” by India to hit terrorist camps, bilateral relations have practically been frozen. A forward movement needs wholly different circumstances and a sincere approach prefaced with confidence-building measures duly acknowledged as such by both sides....