By Ahson Saeed Hasan
Too much has happened in the South Asia over the past few weeks. PM Sharif’s lackluster performance at the UN versus an awe-inspiring reception that his Indian counterpart, Nirendra Modi, received during his recent visit to New York and Washington DC, the seemingly never-ending conflict over Kashmir and finally Malala Yusafzai winning the Nobel Prize only added to the sugary and spicy environment.
I followed the Sharif and Modi visits to the US closely. The Indian prime minister was welcomed and treated like a superstar. In the words of a Modi follower, “it was a story of success littered with heavenly virtues of milk and honey.”
Modi was here on his first official visit to the White House. While Modi, his statements and demeanors were incessantly talked about in the US media, his down to earth and nonchalant ways won him many admirers.
Quite in contrast to Modi’s US yatra, the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had a rather low-profile visit to UN headquarters. His speech was a sullen affair that focused on the Kashmir issue and India’s negative role in resolving the situation. It was, nevertheless, a reminder to the world that the people of Kashmir are still in a limbo after decades of Indian occupation and hence deserve a fair chance to express their will based on precepts of international law.
All this is great. Whereas it is understood that Kashmir is an integral part of Pakistan’s foreign policy paradigm, the country’s leaders must use opportunities like the one the General Assembly session presented to network, branch out and build relationships that are healthy and fruitful for the nation’s polito-economic interests. Kashmir is important but uplifting Pakistan’s image is even more crucial. It is the job of the government representatives and the foreign policy minders to ensure in today’s competitive international environment driven by market forces to market the nation in a strong and effective manner.
The Pakistani prime minister needs to learn a lesson or two from Nirendra Modi in terms of public presentation. College campuses and think tanks here are buzzing with Modi’s way of presentation and style of oratory. Unlike Sharif’s uptight, strictly going by the script arrangement, Modi seems to be at ease to appease and win over audiences with his off the cuff remarks and ability to charm people. Sharif lacks all that in addition to the awareness that presenting innovative ideas at world forums is equally important.
Instead of sulking and moping, Sharif could have recommended some radical steps toward the establishment of peace with Indian and hence put the ball in Modi’s court to respond and react. This was a chance squandered, an opportunity that went abegging to impress upon the world and New Delhi that Pakistan, despite its internal problems and rivalry with India, is still eager to advance the cause of peace and tranquility in the region.
But it’s never too late. My friends say that I’m a dreamer, a diehard peacenik who thinks that political barriers are easy to bring down. Yes, I have a solemn belief that if there’s a will, there’s a way because all barriers are manmade. Sharif can still play a bigger role and come up with proposals that not only convey to all and sundry that Pakistan is engaged in a sustained thought process for having good relations with India and wants to implement a policy of peace with its neighbor. How about proposing a more intensive backdoor, people-to-people dialogue/diplomacy? Or, cutting down the size of military presence by both sides along the border areas? Or, perhaps, open up the Wagha border once or twice a week so that Indians and Pakistanis can see their near and dear ones who were separated from each other at the time partition, have a quick bite and go back home after a few hours? How about Sharif leveraging technology and doing a weekly Skype call with Modi just to chit chat and exchange pleasantries? Better still, take the train to Delhi once in a while and have afternoon tea with his counterpart. Finally, and this may freak out the purists, how about committing to give the Kashmir issue a little less importance, dealing with it as ‘an’ opportunity in the foreign policy paradigm instead of ‘the’ opportunity? Sharif, for all intents and purposes, is Pakistan’s foreign minister and hence, technically, wields substantial influence in the foreign affair arena.
I’m aware of the fact that Sharif will be bruised and battered at home and perhaps branded as a traitor if he makes such radical proposals. He’ll be called insane and he’ll hurt his and his brother’s chances to stay in politics. But this is a gamble worth taking since an aggressive rapprochement initiative with the new resident of Panchavati will only elevate Sharif’s stature as a world leader. If he has the confidence and trust in his leadership skills, there’s a huge possibility that he can prove himself to be the brave groundbreaker that South Asia has been and is yearning for. Sharif has a level-playing field and beyond all the hoopla, he has a chance to show that he has the guts to stand up to the stereotypes and work for steadying up relations with India.
Any overtures for making peace with India will not turn Sharif into a lesser individual or undermine Pakistan’s standing as a nation. There’s nothing to lose, in fact there’s plenty to gain personally for the prime minister as well as for the teeming millions of the sub-continent. All he needs is a bit of swagger, the flare to make a difference. He can talk in any language he’s comfortable in expressing himself, especially one that allows him to get rid of his stiffness and speak with bravado. After all the voice of peace knows no language, no roadblocks – it only brings joy and delight to those who benefit from it. And, trust me, after 3 wars, people of India and Pakistan need loads of peace! All Sharif has to do is speak peace the way he wants to but in an honest and truthful manner.
Without further ado, Sharif must create circumstances to make peace happen, borrow each and every move in the book of peace and march on a path that’ll help emancipate South Asia from the undue and unnatural animosity that has paralyzed friendly relations between two people who were not too long ago a part and parcel of one nation. For starters, Sharif must accept little Malala’s invite to attend the Noble Peace Prize ceremony. Such a gesture will open a door of opportunity and might pressurize Modi to follow suit.
The prime minister is a versatile individual. He also holds the portfolio of the foreign minister and has the ability to connect with Modi and create a rapport that will not belittle him in any shape or form. It’s a win-win situation, one that can help future South Asians grow and prosper without the ridiculous transgressions and stress that characterize the region at this time.
Sharif, if ever he was to embark upon a peace initiative, will encounter tremendous pushback from each and every nook and corner of Pakistan. He’ll be portrayed as a symbol of decaying moral fiber. But, if he’s persistent and resilient, he will achieve immeasurable success, recognition and admiration. All he needs to do is sell the idea that making peace with India is not an act of cowardice. The spirit of making peace is not a sprint but a marathon.
The writer is a Washington DC based journalist who has written extensively on US foreign policy and South Asian affairs. He tweets @tweetingacho (twitter.com/tweetingacho)