The invitation by the incoming PM Narendra Modi to the heads of government of SAARC states, including the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has unfortunately been turned into an occasion of high strategy by Islamabad with the reports emanating at the end of Thursday, May 22, that a final decision will be made by Mian Sahib by late afternoon May 23. He is obviously tugged in different directions. There is the more enlightened section of the Pak Foreign Office which is hoping their leader will not “squander” this opportunity handed on a platter for yet another new start to shift the relations to a higher. more mutually beneficial, plane. This view is backed by those in the trading community and industrial houses who believe they have lot to gain from access to the Big Emerging Market in India. And then there’s the Pakistan Army that finds itself facing a serious dilemma. It has invested much over the years in cultivating the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) as tools of asymmetric warfare, which it is loath to give up, or even to keep sheathed. On the other hand, it finds itself stretched on five fronts — battling the Tareeq-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in FATA and elsewhere in the tribal strongholds in the country’s northwest, fighting the resilient freedom Movement in Baluchistan, containing the situation on the Iran border from getting out of hand with Tehran’s warnings of military hostilities if Pakistan does not control Islamic militants from foraying across into its territory, dealing with the traditional animosity of Afghanistan on the other side of the indistinct Durand Line, which also hosts TTP guerillas seeking safe haven and will only be ratcheted upwards should Abdullah Abdullah be sworn in as successor to Hamid Karzai in Kabul, and then there’s the live-fire situation prevailing with India on the Line of Control in Kashmir.
Rationally-speaking, GHQ Rawalpindi’s best option would seem to be to permit Sharif to visit New Delhi to generate goodwill, re-start talks, and even get the relations moving in the trade and commerce sphere that both Sharif and Modi desire. However, even so level-headed a Pak Army Chief as General Raheel Sharif seems in two minds. The question is can Mian Sahib over-ride Pakistan army’s reservations and make the short hop to New Delhi anyway? If he does somehow manage this feat, the returns to Pakistan, its govt and its army may be far greater than any of them presently anticipate. There’s pressure on PM Sharif to do this also because, other than the Maldivan President, the Nepalese PM Koirala, and the Bhutanese PM, Karzai and Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa accepted Modi’s invitation with alacrity. (Sheikh Hasina’s previously scheduled state tour to Japan on May 26 provides her with legitimate exemption.) Nawaz Sharif will, in the event, be conspicuous by his absence should he not make it to Delhi, and miss out on the moment to forge strong personal relations with Modi at a time when the latter is ascendant and will potentially head the Indian govt for a long time to come.