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Why Are Retired Diplomats Bashing Nawaz Sharif For His Peace Overtures To India?

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If you were exhausted by hearing retired military officers pontificate about critical matters of foreign relations and national security, just watch retired diplomats speak of matters way above their pay checks. From advising the government on brandishing nuclear weapons for forcing India to revise its policies in Indian-occupied-Kashmir to suggesting that former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif went out of his way to appease Indians during his tenure from 2013 – 2017, some of the former diplomats are noticeable for evidently not thinking before opening their mouths.

Policy vs careerism

Recently, Tasneem Aslam and Abdul Basit opened up against Nawaz Sharif’s policy to India describing it as a bid to secure his business interests. Not that an iota of evidence is produced thus far to prove these financial interests, the statements were deliberate to hurt Sharif’s popularity. Perhaps the two retired diplomats, as suggested by Dr Ijaz Khan, a former professor of International Relations at Peshawar University, are job hunting and have their eyes on some vacancy. Basit more than Aslam has the reputation of always being on the right side of critical powers in the country, and personally vicious.

After retiring as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India in 2017, he went against esprit de corps and wrote a nasty letter to the former foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry for his appointment as ambassador to the US labelling the latter as ‘the worst foreign secretary’. Probably, he left all niceties and protocol aside by venting his anger on an official letterhead against a senior colleague because Basit was angry with the prime minister for not being appointed as foreign secretary.

When people think that they are indispensable or all-knowing is an indicator that they hardly know anything at all. It’s also a fact that such diplomats are weary of political governments not just because of the inherent imperfections of the latter but due to their inherent inability to move away from the standard bureaucratic policy formulas. Nor do such bureaucrats have the potential to understand a simple fact that political governments can provide new direction to policies. Or it’s just that, as senior journalist Najam Sethi believes, Abdul Basit is unable to forgive Nawaz Sharif for not making him the foreign secretary. Sharif indeed make a better choice by not getting stuck with a diplomat like Abdul Basit, under whom the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) could only have been terribly unexciting.

Structural design of Foreign Office is the problem

What is being discussed here is not just a personality problem but also the particular structural design of the MFA that has evolved on the principle of focusing on India as an enemy. Notwithstanding reasons for this animosity, Pakistan has historically defined itself in relation to India without exploring its own strength. Therefore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has mainly ignored rest of the world for its focus on a single country. Even the bilateral links with China and the US are defined by Islamabad’s perception of New Delhi.

While the initial years of foreign policy were determined by the Kashmir dispute, the anti-India fervor was etched further after the change of government in 1972. Having lost the Eastern wing, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto pledged ‘a thousand years of war with India.’ The early 1970s was also the period when both the civil and military bureaucracies were restructured. The new officer cadre that was inducted and grew during the 1970s was trained in the single mission of countering the bigger neighbour.

Traditionally, anti-Indianism had greatest appeal in Punjab that directly witnessed the post-partition carnage. It’s also the province where bulk of the military comes from. India’s suspicion remained intertwined with the idea of patriotism which resulted in Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s election victory in 1971. Aslam and Basit’s statements probably draw upon the perception that people will shun Sharif and turn towards Imran Khan or some other politician if they are told about the former prime minister hatching some kind of conspiracy with India against Pakistan.

From the perspective of job hunt, the accusations under discussion would certainly make these officers popular with Imran Khan, who does not lose any opportunity to defame his predecessor.

1990s: Benazir and Nawaz struggled to change foreign policy

One wonders if the foreign service babus realize that the political economy of conflict started to undergo a shift during the 1990s. The political governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif hoped to change the course of bilateral relations from conflict to cooperation. The credit entirely goes to Benazir Bhutto for re-evaluating her father’s hawkish foreign policy and turning away from it. In December 1989, she received India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with whom she signed three deals out of which the most significant was banning attacks on each other’s nuclear installations.

The 1990s was the beginning of a new era after the end of the Cold War. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and later its collapse carried a message for the world – without economic prowess even a strong power could not survive as a state. Furthermore, continued hostilities in the region would not benefit either country, and not thinking of alternatives was like cutting your nose to spite the face.

For all their flaws the political governments in Islamabad appreciated the value of building regional links. Although the two governments of Bhutto and Sharif always raised anti-India slogans when in opposition, they were both convinced of the strategic value of improving relations. The back-channel diplomacy during Sharif’s second tenure as prime minister resulted in Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpai coming to Pakistan. The Lahore Declaration signed at that time was even considered by many of Basit and Aslam’s bosses as a fine document.

It was during this decade that the hope of forward movement was built on the basis that peace would be a win-win for both sides. Insurgencies could not be used against each other. When the Khan government and his foreign minister, whom Tasneem Aslam and Abdul Basit are perhaps trying to poach, believe that the Kartarpur Corridor can be used against India, they forget that returning to the strategy of the past is not possible. The Sikhs in India have gone through a lot of bloodshed to want more.

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Despite that Pervez Musharraf destroyed the initiative with the Kargil Operation, he himself got convinced later of the efficacy of peace and stability in the region. Apparently, it was not the Foreign Office but some of the people around him that convinced the army chief of turning away from conflict. Although the Agra Summit did not bear results due to reservations of hawks on both sides, it was during those years that the stage was set for turning the mood in Punjab. Numerous studies were conducted that includes report by the State Bank on how Pakistan could benefit from India’s then burgeoning liquidity. Keen to develop links with power-centers inside India, the Musharraf presidency even encouraged a love affair that later turned into a happy marriage between a Pakistani journalist and a prominent Indian politician. Peace had seemed an irreversible process until it was turned around with the Mumbai attack.

The political government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) tried to re-start the peace process by considering the option of granting India the Most-favoured Nation (MFN) status. After all, India had already granted Pakistan the same. The move was thwarted due to genuine and some not so genuine objections of strong lobbies inside the country. The Farmer’s Association of Pakistan (FAP), which was then led by Shah Mehmood Qureshi, proved instrumental in blocking the government’s move. It is the same FAP that later was keen in building trade ties with India.

Nawaz’s third tenure could not restart the peace process

By 2013, Nawaz Sharif was convinced of the value of enhancing the economic pie through trade. The commerce ministry’s evaluation was that Pakistan’s share of total Indian trade was around three percent, which if increased, would mean substantial dividends. During his tenure (2013-17) as PM, Sharif reached out both to China and India for building trade relations. Building good relations was not a secret agenda as Nawaz Sharif talked about it soon after his election and before being sworn in as the prime minister. Sharif learnt from the PPP’s mistake and brought in business, industry and trade stakeholders into the negotiation loop. A committee was formed that included members of the government and the private sector all on the same side to talk to the other side.

For those that will cry murder at Nawaz Sharif’s peace initiative as being a letdown, he carefully did take a brave initiative that only politicians can take. When I spoke with the head of FAP in 2014, the lobby had started to think about Indian investment in Pakistan’s agriculture over the next decade. Moreover, it was engaged in discussions to ensure that while perishable items like vegetables and fruits were not imported through Wagah, agricultural machinery must as it would reduce the cost. Similarly, Suzuki, the largest car manufacturer in Pakistan was interested in trade through Wahgah as it would reduce the cost of import of engines manufactured next door instead of in Japan.

Building good relations was not a secret agenda as Nawaz Sharif talked about it soon after his election and before being sworn in as the prime minister.

One wonders if Aslam and Basit were not in the knowledge of the aforementioned process of negotiation because the Indian counterpart, TCA Raghavan certainly was. Or did they not think the initiative as critical, or were they simply unable to view relations rationally beyond conflict?

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Keeping in view the significance of Pakistan’s baradari system for its politics, Sharif could not afford to defy his ‘Kashmiri’ baradari, nor his professional community of trader-merchants and business and industry. Not to mention the fact that his political career was quite promising despite Panama Leaks for him to destroy it through bad diplomacy.

Managing conflict as an imperative

Barring irrationality of a babu (bureaucrat), improving relations with India through trade was need of the time. It was not about compromising national interests but about building stakes in each other in a way that would make discussions or resultant concessions possible. I remember my conversations with numerous trader-merchants, businessmen and industrialists during the course of my research on Pakistan’s trade with India, Iran and Afghanistan I did not come across a single person in Karachi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Gujranwala and Multan (this is where bulk of the interviews were conducted) who had reservation about trade with India.

In fact, when asked the question about what would happen to Kashmir issue, all respondents were clear that an economically weak Pakistan could not effectively raise the issue internationally. Many would snap back tu kiya ab tuk hum ney Kashmir ley liya hey?” (so have we until now got Kashmir).

Nawaz Sharif realized that military options had failed to solve the Kashmir issue, and perhaps, the only possibility was to engage with New Delhi and encourage it to develop stakes in peace with Pakistan. Besides Aslam and Basit, it seems, many seniors in the Foreign Office were aware of what the world said.

Well before the emergence of ‘Dawn leaks’, the foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry had briefed some people (including those from PTI) about international community’s reservations regarding militancy emanating from Pakistan. It was but logical for Sharif to want to build personal ties with Narendra Modi or even India’s business community. Back channel diplomacy was even used by Musharraf. Former ambassador Niaz A. Naik had links with India’s Reliance group, a connection used to engage with Indian business community across the border so that it could become a more active stakeholder in the peace initiative. Basit surely knew about Naik and the Reliance group to have pointed a finger at Sajjan Jindal’s contact with Sharif or his visits to Pakistan. Furthermore, at a time when two terror attacks took place in India – Pathankot and Uri – due to which relations took a nosedive, it was important for heads of governments to have better understanding and communication to bring the temperature down between the two nuclear weapon states. Back channel links are important particularly when critical stakeholders pose a threat. Notwithstanding the resentment we feel about Narendra Modi’s politics and policy vis-à-vis Kashmir, he remains one of the few people in India’s government to engage with Pakistan.

Oddly enough, Tasneem Aslam and Abdul Basit have complained about Nawaz Sharif at a time when the present government, despite its alleged resoluteness to counter India and save Kashmir, is totally unable to bring any change in the lives of Kashmiris. Sadly for their ambitions, the Corona pandemic has further dimmed their options. 

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