Sharif's win sparks hope for Pakistan-India ties
WAGAH, Pakistan (AP) -- Over a decade ago, the man now set to become Pakistan's next prime minister stood at this border crossing with archenemy India to inaugurate a "friendship" bus service connecting the two countries as cheering supporters waved flags and tossed rose petals.
There is widespread hope on both sides of the border that Nawaz Sharif will take similarly bold steps to improve relations with India following his election victory over the weekend, thus reducing the chance of a fourth major war between the nuclear-armed foes.
The reason for this optimism is not only his track record of reaching out to India the last time he was prime minister - until the effort was doomed by Pakistan's powerful army - but also his commitment to turning around Pakistan's stuttering economy. Closer ties with India are seen as critical because of the potential for much greater trade between the two countries.
Reducing the threat from India could also help the 63-year-old Sharif accomplish another unspoken goal, reducing the clout of the Pakistani army, which has long used the potential for armed conflict to justify a huge defense budget.
But the army, which sabotaged Sharif's previous peace efforts in 1999 by secretly sending troops into India and eventually toppling him in a coup, could hit back. It may do so if it feels its interests are being threatened or the country is moving too quickly on sensitive issues with India like the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
"We will pick up the threads from where we left in 1999," Sharif told reporters Monday at his palatial estate near the eastern city of Lahore. "That is the roadmap that I have for improvement of relations between Pakistan and India."
Another potential spoiler is the Pakistan-based Islamic militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out an attack on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 that killed over 160 people. The attack followed efforts by Pakistan's newly elected government to improve ties with majority Hindu India.
India's political leaders and media have hailed Sharif's victory. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent Sharif a message the day after the May 11 election saying the people of India "welcome your publicly articulated commitment to a relationship between India and Pakistan that is defined by peace, friendship and cooperation." Sharif responded to the goodwill by saying he would be pleased if Singh attended his inauguration.
But India has been frustrated by Pakistan's failure to crack down on Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has strong historical links with Pakistani intelligence. That frustration could grow with Sharif since he has also shown no inclination to target the group, which is based in his party's stronghold of Punjab province. The two-time prime minister is also seen as more devoutly religious and close to hardline Islamic parties than the outgoing government is.
Sharif sought to temper concerns Monday when an Indian journalist asked him about the Mumbai attack, saying "we will ensure there is no repeat of any such incident ever again."
The Lashkar-e-Taiba founder who is believed to have masterminded the attack, Hafiz Saeed, remains free in Lahore, despite a $10 million reward offered by the U.S. for his arrest and conviction. A trial of seven Pakistani men suspected of involvement in the Mumbai attack has also made little progress.
Even if Sharif wanted to target Lashkar-e-Taiba, he could run up against Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, which helped form the group to put pressure on India over Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries but claimed in its entirety by both.
Kashmir has sparked two of the three major wars fought between Pakistan and India since they were carved out of British India in 1947. The Pakistani army used militant proxies to fight in Kashmir for years, and is accused of still doing so despite its denials.
Sharif discovered the danger of crossing the army in 1999. He began the year by inaugurating the "friendship" bus service at the Wagah border near Lahore in February. The Indian prime minister at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, rode the first bus across the border to meet Sharif, who reminisced about the day in his meeting with reporters Monday.
"We were very happy on this visit," said Sharif. "It was a defining moment in Indo-Pak relations."
Two days later, the leaders signed a landmark agreement known as the Lahore Declaration that sought to avoid nuclear conflict.
But the goodwill didn't last long. In May 1999, the Pakistani army chief at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, quietly sent soldiers into an area of Indian-held Kashmir called Kargil, sparking a conflict that cost hundreds of lives and could have led to nuclear war. Sharif said the army acted without his knowledge. Five months later, Musharraf toppled Sharif in a coup and sent him into exile in Saudi Arabia, not allowing him to return until 2007.
Hostility in the army toward India remains strong, but the current chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is believed to have supported efforts over the past 18 months to improve trade relations given the poor state of Pakistan's economy. Trade between the two countries is about $2 billion dollars per year, and many experts believe that amount could increase multiple times with better ties.
Pakistan announced in 2011 that it would grant India most favored nation trading status, something India did in 1996. But domestic pressure from businesses worried about competition has prevented the government from following through.
Sharif, the son of a wealthy industrialist whose party is considered pro-business, will be watched closely to see if he moves quickly on the issue, said Khurram Husain, a freelance business journalist in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.
"The faster he does it after coming into power, the more he shows the other side we are serious," Husain said.
Another area where Sharif could work to improve economic ties is by trying to open more border crossings between the two countries, Husain said, noting that Wagah is currently the only crossing for cargo.
The Wagah crossing is also the site of a colorful border closing ceremony each day attended by hundreds of people on both sides, who watch Pakistani and Indian soldiers try to outmarch each other by throwing their legs high in the air to show their rivals the bottom of their boot - a grave insult in this part of the world.
Zaheer Ahmed, who was headed to the border ceremony with his young son, said he was optimistic that relations with India would improve following Sharif's victory.
"Nawaz is a businessman, so I believe he will definitely improve trade with India, which would help both countries," said Ahmed. "An increase in trade would also bring more people-to-people contact, which would make Pakistan's relations with India friendlier."
Despite the optimism, an editorial in the Hindustan Times in India said the country should not expect a Kashmir settlement or a crackdown on Lashkar-e-Taiba in the coming months.
"What it can hope for is a government that will address the structural failures of the Pakistani economy, a government that will try and strengthen civilian institutions at the expense of the army; and a government that will understand that cutting dependence on the United States and China is only possible if Pakistan has a modus vivendi with India," it said.
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Asif Shahzad and Zaheer Babar in Lahore and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.