Lahore bonhomie: What next? Will Sharif tame Hafiz Saeed?

mea-pak-modi-intro1The guessing game goes on. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dramatic journey to Lahore on December 25 has sparked a wave of speculation about possible motives behind this out-of-the-box initiative, but whatever the truth may be, the year seems to be ending on a good note for the troubled India-Pakistan relations. The stagnating relationship, which got caught in a vicious circle of mutual accusations, has acquired a new bounce and vitality with the foreign secretaries of the two countries set to meet around mid-January to work out the modalities of carrying forward the dialogue process.

What’s refreshing is that Modi’s Lahore diplomacy has created an overwhelmingly positive atmosphere across both sides of the border, with leading players in Pakistan’s political establishment making approving noises about it. The assessment that the revived dialogue process has the backing of Pakistan’s all-powerful military establishment has fuelled hopes that the engagement process will be more durable and constructive this time around. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan have welcomed the meeting between PM Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Lahore and their joint resolve to push forward the revived peace process. Mr Bilawal said that constant communication was the only solution for Pakistan-India issue.

Mahmud Durrani, a retired General and former national security adviser, was amazed at this bold gesture by PM Modi, who continues to evoke mixed feelings in Pakistan. “My hope has risen. We hope something positive develops from this.”

The Pakistani media, like its Indian counterpart, which is normally very shrill in its coverage and analysis of India-Pakistan relations, was also broadly supportive of the latest move by the two countries to normalise their ties. In an editorial, The Express Tribune, an influential Pakistani daily, said: “Looking past the surprise and hyperbole, the visit of Prime Minister Modi and the obvious warmth of his reception by Prime Minister Sharif, looks more like considered statesmanship than political grandstanding.”

Many influential political figures and analysts across both sides of the divide have hailed it as an act of statesmanship, but the journey ahead entails taking calculated risks and hard decisions. The Express Tribune cautioned of the challenges ahead: “How the relationship between these two men plays out, and how well or ill they are able to sell their aspirations to wary, cynical and mistrustful voters in two countries where the borders crackle with fire, is going to be crucial to the regional future.”

This is not to suggest that there are no cynics and sceptics. The Daily Times, a Pakistani daily, highlighted some arguments trotted out by sceptics. “Many analysts are of the view that Pakistan should be very cautious about expressing its stance as they regard the recent change in the Indian government’s stance as just an attempt to take off international pressure and to restore its falling image. Therefore, those who expect to have sound development in building ties between the two nuclear nations are just building castles in the air.”

pakistan-hafeezThe meeting between Modi and Sharif in Lahore on a Christmas day was clearly high-stakes goodwill diplomacy. For a change, there was no usual posturing about big-ticket issues like Kashmir and terror which continues to dog the India-Pakistan ties. But looking at the way ahead, the real challenge will be righwing zealots like Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the Mumbai carnage. Saeed, who loves spewing anti-India venom, predictably slammed the latest initiative. “Modi’s sudden visit and extraordinary treatment of him by the Pakistan government rekindled the painful memories of the relatives of terrorism victims in Pakistan and the people of Kashmir. Personal friendship aside, Modi is a murderer and brutal killer of Muslims and occupier of Kashmir”. Similarly, Siraj ul Haq chief of Jamaat-e-Islami has strongly criticised Nawaz Sharif’s diplomatic efforts and has termed the meeting as “fraternising with the enemy.”

Looking ahead, the leaders of India and Pakistan should know how to vanquish these spoilers. Mr Sharif, for one, should promptly rein in the loose-tongued Hafiz Saeed, who can be relied on to be more proactive in trying to wreck the revived engagement between the two neighbours.

(Rubaina Sangha contributed inputs for this article)

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