When Nawaz Sharif was elected Pakistan’s Prime Minister for a third time in May, he signalled that he would like to leave off where he started when he was last in power.
In 1998, he kick-started a peace process with India which was thwarted by a clumsy military adventure led by General Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew Mr Sharif in a coup the following year. In interviews with leading Indian journalists, Mr Sharif said his government would revive talks that had almost stopped since the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. He impressed his questioners with pledges to hold an exhaustive inquiry into those attacks, and prevent the groups responsible from using Pakistan’s soil for any further ambitions they may have.
But if the disputes like the Line of Control incident, in which India’s Defence Minister claims Pakistani special forces crossed the Kashmir border and killed Indian troops, continue to escalate, all prospects of South Asian bonhomie may begin to recede further into the distance.
For Mr Sharif, peace with India has many potential dividends. As a pro-business politician, he favours more trade with the larger, economically successful neighbour, hoping to lift Pakistan out of its economic misery by gliding in India’s slipstream. Pakistan’s energy crisis could also be alleviated through deals with India’s private sector.
As a politician who was once ousted in a military coup, Mr Sharif is also wary of how tensions with India can boost the army’s standing in Pakistan. In times of peace, the influence wielded by Pakistani generals diminishes. To this end, Mr Sharif has retained the portfolio of foreign minister himself, hoping to wrench back control of foreign policy from the generals. But Mr Sharif faces powerful opponents. While much of the Pakistani political class in principle wants better relations with India, there are hostile voices within the media and among religious hardline groups.
Mr Sharif is set to meet his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next month. Formal talks were to resume in January 2014. But Mr Singh also faces pressure to take a harder line. It would be pity if hardliners on both sides of the border are able to derail a peace process even before it has begun.