Nawaz Sharif, the center of it all. Photographer: Udit Kulshrestha/Bloomberg
Nawaz Sharif, the center of it all. Photographer: Udit Kulshrestha/Bloomberg

India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who won a landslide victory earlier this month on the back of a promise to swiftly transform India, raised expectations all over the subcontinent after pulling off a considerable diplomatic coup when the heads of several South Asian states attended his swearing-in ceremony.

No visitor stood out so starkly at Monday's ceremony as Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and not just for his suit. Sharif defied hard-liners in his country to accept the new Indian government's invitation. It signaled the possibility of renewed dialogue over cross-border terrorism, the Kashmir dispute and trade between the two countries -- indeed, over the future and the past of the subcontinent, which has been held hostage since 1947 to the rancor and suspicion generated by colonial India's partition along religious lines into two, then three, states. (East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971.)

India’s Aspirations

The Modi government’s invitation, and Sharif’s acceptance, also created a piquant situation: that of the hawkish leader of a dovish state reaching out to the dovish leader of an extremely hawkish and unstable state. Modi did not have to watch his back in making the move -- which was attacked in India only by a small right-wing fringe -- as Sharif would have had to in making his.

While Modi is to be commended for his nous in signaling India’s wish to play a more decisive role in the affairs of the subcontinent, Sharif must be commended for his courage and his willingness to ignore patterns of the past.

The last time Sharif was in power and agreed to talk with India, in 1999, his generals -- most notably Pervez Musharraf -- moved swiftly to undermine the peace process and foment trouble on the border. This triggered a chain of events that began with the Kargil War of 1999, leading to Sharif rushing to Washington to discuss Pakistan's exit from the war with President Bill Clinton. Sharif was later ousted by Musharraf himself and had to endure eight years in exile in Saudi Arabia, even as Pakistan fell once again under army rule. Sharif returned to Pakistan in 2007 and was elected prime minister again last year.

Memories of those turbulent years will bring a considerable realism, if not outright skepticism, to any future talks between the two countries, the possibility of which were opened up by an hourlong tete-a-tete the day after Modi's swearing-in -- talks that Sharif later described as “good and constructive.”

The paradox of the Indian subcontinent is that a relative, if strained, peace can be kept up as long as there is no major movement by its two large, feuding states toward a greater concord. But when the possibility of a fresh start between India and Pakistan opens up -- as it last did in 1999 -- many state and nonstate actors who are deeply invested in the perpetuation of conflict get to work immediately, generating dangerous tensions between two nuclear-armed nations that must be resolved. This pattern played itself out again last week when four gunmen attacked the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, before being shot dead after a 10-hour face-off. Any Indian casualties in the attack would have likely led to Sharif’s visit being called off.

Even so, both leaders -- who were elected within a year of each other -- also know that they have a historic opportunity to lay down, if not completely control, a new narrative for the subcontinent and its 1.5 billion people. The brightest note from the Sharif visit was sounded by his enterprising daughter, Maryam. “I personally think cordial relations with new Indian govt should be cultivated," she tweeted. "Will help remove psychological barriers, fear & misgivings.” Sharif himself tweeted a picture of himself and Modi shaking hands, saying, “Engagement in the neighborhood!”

Modi played his cards close to his chest, having in a sense already gained what he had to -- changing his image from fire-breathing hard-liner to sagacious statesman -- by the very fact of Sharif's visit and being hemmed in somewhat by his own past record on the treatment of Muslims in India and baiting of Pakistan. (In a pre-election television interview, he criticized the Indian government, in Hindi, for writing “love letters to Pakistan” and said the country should be “answered in its own language.”)

Modi’s office said only that he had “underlined our concerns related to terrorism” to Sharif -- concerns that he must know Pakistan's prime minister can do little to address in the short term. A small example: Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head as the suspected mastermind of 2008's deadly terror attacks in Mumbai, remains a free man in Pakistan. No one reacted more darkly to the news of Sharif’s visit than Saeed: “Instead of appeasing India, Nawaz Sharif should represent nation’s aspiration by reviewing his decision to visit Modi’s oath-taking ceremony,” he tweeted.

If it’s so hard to do anything constructive in this environment, what would realists be willing to accept as a sign of real progress? Former Pakistani diplomat Sherry Rahman suggested in a column that the two leaders would do well merely to agree on how to respond, as overseers of one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders, to the next flash point, which could arrive at any time, from anywhere. In this part of the world, crisis management may be of more relevance to an eventual long-term solution than trade.

And what of the other major player on the subcontinent, the U.S.? An official in the Barack Obama administration said the meeting between Modi and Sharif left the U.S. “cautiously hopeful,” according to the Hindu newspaper.

Would that India could say the same about America’s own role in the affairs of the subcontinent. From the Cold War to the war in Afghanistan to its use of drone strikes against terrorists in Pakistan, the U.S.’s actions in the service of its own interests have disrupted the prospects of peace in the region at least as much as postcolonial animosity, memories of the bloodbath of Partition, the wars of 1965 and 1971, the nuclear bombs developed by both countries in the '90s, and the strategic use of terrorist outfits by both the Pakistani state and the army.

If the winds of change are truly to blow on the subcontinent, then the truth is that this will require not just more initiative from its two great powers and their leaders, but also more reticence from the world's superpower.

To contact the writer of this article: Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.