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NEW DELHI: Cautious optimism emerged in India as new Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif took office, with analysts saying political change in Islamabad could lead to a diplomatic thaw between the two rival South Asian neighbors after years of tension.
India-Pakistan relations have been marred by conflict since the two countries became independent nations following the partition of British India in 1947. The main cause of tension has been Kashmir, a region they claim in full but govern in part, and over which they have fought three wars over the past seven decades.
The tension over Kashmir led to the freezing of ties between nuclear-armed neighbors under the leadership of Sharif’s predecessor, Imran Khan.
In August 2019, after the Indian government withdrew self-governing status from the Kashmir territory under its administration and removed inherited protections over land and jobs, Islamabad downgraded diplomatic ties with New Delhi and suspended bilateral trade.
When Sharif was sworn in on Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first world leaders to congratulate him, saying India “craves peace and stability”.
Sharif also spoke in a reconciliatory tone, saying Pakistan wanted “good relations with India”, while outlining his administration’s foreign policy priorities. But he also said it would require a “just solution to the Kashmir conflict” and he would raise the Kashmir issue in all forums.
Indian observers were divided on Sharif’s statement, but most saw room for dialogue.
“It is difficult for the Prime Minister of Pakistan not to raise the issue of Kashmir. There is no incentive for him not to lift it,” Manoj Joshi of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation told Arab News.
“We should not exaggerate this statement. As an incoming PM, he must make this declaration. He faces an election,” Joshi added. “I think the prospects for dialogue are good.”
Sharif was sworn in as the country’s prime minister following a week-long constitutional crisis that came to a head on Sunday when Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote. The new leader will now form a government that can remain in place until August 2023, when the general elections are held.
Pravin Sawhney, editor of the defense and security magazine Force, said there were “very bright prospects for dialogue” once Pakistan’s political situation stabilizes after the recent crisis.
“There is a bit of instability in Pakistan. When things become stable, the talks will start,” he said, adding that with the arrival of the new Pakistani Prime Minister, it will be the head of the Pakistani army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who “will lead the show “.
In March 2021, Bajwa called on both nations to bury the past after their military issued a rare joint statement announcing a ceasefire along the Line of Control, a highly militarized de facto border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and where cross-border gunfire has left hundreds dead.
“Bajwa started the ceasefire,” Sawhney added. “And he said repeatedly that he would have talks with India.”
Jatin Desai, former Secretary General of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, was less optimistic about an immediate improvement in Islamabad-New Delhi relations, although he said there was “some hope resumption of dialogue between the two nations”.
Desai said the relationship could improve if efforts were focused on restoring trade – as was the case when Sharif’s older brother and Khan’s immediate predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, were in power.
“Nawaz Sharif, when he was prime minister, valued trade between two nations. It helped both. The start with trade is quite possible,” Desai told Arab News.
“I believe, let’s start with trade and other issues identified as confidence-building measures,” he said. “Peace and friendly relations between neighboring nations are always important. In the case of India and Pakistan, it can reach a new height in trade, culture and people-to-people contacts. The most important thing is to develop trust.
But some say that while Pakistan under Sharif might be willing to talk to India, obstacles to the process could come from New Delhi.
“The mention of Kashmir by Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif certainly rules out the possibility of any reconciliation, as India after the repeal of Articles 370 and 35A refuses to recognize Kashmir as a disputed issue,” said Sanjay Kapoor, editor in head of the political magazine Hard News. “If Sharif decides to recognize the new changes, the opportunity to speak is there. Not otherwise.”
In Kashmir, the prospects for improvement are dim, as it would require resolving not only the part of the territory under Indian control, but also that of wider Kashmir.
Kashmir, the northernmost geographical region of the Indian subcontinent, encompasses an area that includes Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, as well as the Pakistani-administered territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan .
“We in Kashmir have long known that peace between the two countries is of paramount importance in solving the enigma that is Jammu and Kashmir,” the historian and international affairs expert said. , Professor Siddiq Wahid.
“But equally important requirements are those of honesty and transparency in case they resume a dialogue. Honesty here would require addressing all of Jammu and Kashmir including Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh. And transparency would entail giving confidence to all the peoples of the territories of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir before and during their dialogue,” he added.
“These elements were missing in all the dialogues until now.”