Three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in his friendly approach towards India, which began in the 1990s when he came into his own after starting his career as military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s protégé
Cricket has been among the few common grounds through decades of mostly hostile ties between India and Pakistan, which have fought four wars over the 70 years of their existence as nation-states. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s greatest cricketer ever, once epitomized the potential of sport in bridging divides. A debonair sportsman, Khan enjoyed a fan following in India that no Pakistani could now dream of emulating.
A part of Khan’s appeal stemmed from his background. Khan came from the upper-class westernized elite, which admired the idea of India that its secular and democratic founding fathers articulated. The admiration was reflected in his early days as the Prime Minister until it perhaps became clear to him that India has fundamentally changed under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rule.
The BJP leadership has no time or inclination for the niceties of their secularist predecessors. It has reshaped India to the extent that there are now no common grounds between the two countries. Khan was particularly intemperate towards India after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019 and the prolonged siege of the region.
Khan’s belligerence brought him into the crosshairs of BJP-RSS’s well-oiled cyber warriors, and much of India’s media allied to the country’s ruling establishment. His critics, including Khan’s second wife, were given generous space and airtime to essentially dig out dirt on him and project him negatively much like Indian opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
Khan was now no exception and has joined the long list of Pakistan politicians, who have been seen as villains in India. The list includes Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto. Pakistani leaders are more unpopular in India when they are in power. Jinnah tops the list of villains in India as Pakistan’s originator. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is known in India for talking about a 1000-war and for nurturing Pakistan’s atomic programme for parity with India. He vowed to make the bomb even if they had to eat grass.
Benazir Bhutto is blamed for her role in the insurrection against India in Kashmir in the late 1980s. Her son and Pakistan’s current foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has also taken a hardline on India. He has repeatedly referred to the origins of the BJP’s parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has also personally targetted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Indian counterpart, S Jaishankar. He has spoken about RSS drawing inspiration from the Nazis in the 1940s and linked it to the situation of India’s 200 million Muslim minority.
Unlike most Pakistani leaders, three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in his conciliatory approach towards India. His brother, Shehbaz, who replaced Khan as the Prime Minister in April 2022, was expected to continue Nawaz Sharif’s conciliatory approach to India but has had little breathing space as Khan’s popularity has soared since his ouster.
Khan has swept by-polls and taken to the streets demanding fresh polls. India will prefer to see Khan out of power even as New Delhi has no direct influence over Pakistan’s domestic politics.
Nawaz Sharif’s friendly approach to New Delhi began in the 1990s when he came into his own after starting his career as military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s protégé. Zia, who is seen to be the architect of anti-India insurgencies in Kashmir and the Indian side of Punjab, handpicked Nawaz Sharif and ensured his rise as a national leader while he was still in his 30s. He tried to replicate his success against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the US help in Kashmir and Punjab.
Break With Past
Zia’s protégé Nawaz Sharif sought to turn his mentor’s policy towards India on its head and went on to sign the Lahore Declaration with his Indian counterpart, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan to sign the pact for peaceful co-existence years after his BJP led a movement for the demolition of a 16th-century mosque, which triggered one of the worst episodes of anti-Muslim violence and left thousands dead.
Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly denounced the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan, which was fought months after the signing of the declaration. He maintained that the Pakistan Army planned the war without his knowledge and continued his conciliatory policy while he was in exile after his removal from power following a military coup in October 1999.
Nawaz Sharif backed unilateral visa-free travel for Indians ahead of the 2013 polls in Pakistan. He also called for demilitarisation of the world’s highest battlefield—Siachen Glacier—while linking his quest for peace with India to Pakistan’s prosperity.
In its manifesto, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N) promised special priority to a peaceful settlement of outstanding issues with New Delhi while proposing to connect India with Afghanistan, Iran, and other energy-rich Central Asian republics via Pakistan.
PML (N)’s promises came even as Islamabad saw India’s presence in Afghanistan before the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul in 2012 with suspicion and accused New Delhi of using the Afghan territory to stoke separatism in Pakistan.
Nawaz Sharif said he can even visit India without an invitation after his victory in the 2013 polls, which he saw as an endorsement of his conciliatory approach towards India. He called his quest for peace with India ‘the cardinal principle’ of his foreign policy in his Independence Day speech in August 2014.
Months earlier, Nawaz Sharif flew to New Delhi to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony after the Indian leader was voted to power for the first time. He ended a tradition of visiting Pakistani leaders by refusing to meet Kashmiri separatists as per the wishes of his hosts.
Swim Against Current
Nawaz Sharif even developed a good personal rapport with Modi, who has used anti-Pakistan rhetoric to win elections since his days as a provincial leader in the western Indian state of Gujarat. This ensured a short-lived turnaround in the bilateral ties when Modi flew to Lahore to meet Nawaz Sharif in 2015. Modi embraced Nawaz Sharif at the Lahore airport’s tarmac before they walked hand in hand. The meeting held out hope for better ties.
Nawaz Sharif and Modi risked the meeting despite much baggage. Modi was banned from entering the US until he became the Prime Minister a year earlier on the grounds of violating religious freedom over his alleged role in the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 when he was the chief minister.
Nawaz Sharif’s risk was also greater as he hosted Modi in the absence of his national security advisor and foreign ministry officials. He drew flak for his contempt for institutional procedures as Pakistan is said to have no record of the meeting.
Nawaz Sharif’s attacks on Pakistan’s military establishment have gained him much admiration in India. They have earned him laudatory coverage in the Indian press, which largely sticks to the state’s line on defence and foreign affairs.
The Indian media amplified his criticism of Pakistan’s army’s leadership as part of a campaign against Imran Khan’s government. They have echoed the line that the army propped up Khan and had a role in the removal of Nawaz Sharif, who was disqualified in 2017 after his family was found to have bought properties in upscale London through illegally obtained money through offshore holdings.
Nawaz Sharif has been portrayed as a champion of democracy even as he repeatedly failed democratic tests during his time in power by slandering his rival, Benazir Bhutto, in the 1990s with organized campaigns to malign her. Jemina,
Imran Khan’s first wife faced a vicious anti-Semitic campaign allegedly at Nawaz Sharif’s behest in the 1990s. Nawaz Sharif harassed the media and got journalist Najam Sethi arrested. He influenced the judiciary to get his rivals convicted. His party attacked the Supreme Court. Nawaz Sharif has also faced criticism for promoting dynastic politics and nepotism.