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Indo-Pak Relations: Sharif’s Right Move at the Right Time

02 Jun 2014
By Lindsay Hughes
Source: Supplied (Facebook)

The decision by Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, to attend the swearing-in of Indian Prime Minister-elect, Narendra Modi, despite opposition from the Pakistani military, sends the right messages to India and the Pakistani generals.


After winning the recent election in India, Narendra Modi sent invitations to the heads of India’s neighbours to attend his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi. Correctly seen as a master-stroke of diplomacy by most India-watchers, it was seen as a signal to these leaders that India wants good relations with its neighbours. Pakistan, notably, was included in this list of invitees, an entirely new position for the Pakistani government.


Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, came under almost immediate pressure to decline India’s invitation to attend the ceremony. Reports indicate that opposition came from the Chief of the Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, and the special assistant on foreign affairs, Tariq Fatimi, among others. They believe Sharif would be ill-advised to go to New Delhi. The Army seems to be more interested in asserting itself as a major decision maker in Pakistani politics, than in whether Sharif attends the ceremony or not.

Sharif came to office partly because of his electoral promise to engender better relations with India. He has come under pressure from hard-liners in the Army, however, to take a tougher stand against India, with whom Pakistan has fought three major wars. This could be because the Army feels the need to justify its funding, reportedly close to a fifth of Pakistan’s annual budget. Consequently, it plays up the threat posed by India. The defence budget for the fiscal year 2012–2013 allocated US$2.8 billion to the Army, US$1.2 billion to the Air Force and US$562 million to the Navy. The total was approximately US$191 million higher than the previous year.

In contrast to the Army’s opposition to Sharif’s visit, the Pakistani High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, strongly urged Sharif to attend the ceremony. Mr Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, the Chief Minister of Punjab, and Sharif’s advisor on foreign affairs and national security, Sartaj Aziz also urged him to go.

Surprisingly, the Pakistani foreign ministry was also strongly in favour – unlike its Indian counterpart, which seems to have been taken by surprise by Modi’s invitation and remains uneasy about the overture. In the event, Mr Sharif took two days to reach a decision on whether to accept the invitation. Some Indian security analysts believe this was due to his desire to reach a consensus before announcing his decision; this was, effectively, a delaying tactic by the Army chiefs, who probably sought to demonstrate their authority in crafting Pakistan’s national security and foreign policy. Having been “consulted” by the Prime Minister, they agreed to his trip.

The tension between the Prime Minister and the Army stems from a disagreement on how best to respond to a Taliban offensive, which has killed thousands of Pakistanis. Another of Sharif’s electoral promises was to reach a peaceful solution with the Taliban. Several rounds of talks between them have failed, however, somewhat validating the Army’s view that a military solution is the only viable option.  There have been strikes against the Taliban and it is likely that Sharif gave the Army permission to carry them out. They were not, however, of the intensity that might have been expected, given the Army’s pent-up frustration.

A third source of tension between the Army and government surfaced recently, when a popular TV journalist was shot by unidentified gunmen. The Geo News channel blamed the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Army’s intelligence wing, for the shooting. Public criticism of the ISI is virtually unknown in Pakistan; this led the Army to demand that the government cancel the broadcaster’s licence. The government’s media regulator, however, refused to do so, and the Army saw this as yet another act of defiance and an attempt to subjugate it. In Sharif’s view, this incident has little to do with a TV channel and more to do with freedom of expression and democratic rights. Despite this, as one government official observed, the Army now has to be considered when taking any decision about India or Afghanistan. Again, as an Army General reportedly stated, the Army Chief would choose ‘the institution over the constitution’ if the situation warranted.

Pakistan is, in the final analysis, a democracy. Mr Sharif was elected by the Pakistani electorate to govern the country. He is, therefore, fully justified in attending the swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi if he believes that such a gesture, coupled with his reciprocal move to release 151 Indian fishermen held in Pakistani custody, will help to engender a better relationship with India than the two countries have ever had before. His is a courageous act that should be fully supported.


Lindsay Hughes is a Research Assistant at the Indian Ocean Research Programme at Future Directions International.  The author can be contacted at

This article was originally published by Future Directions International. It is republished with permission.