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Change in govt in Islamabad, an opportunity for normalising India-Pak ties

The change in government in Islamabad can become a harbinger for not just restoring civility in relations between India and Pakistan but also give a push for normalisation of ties between the two neighbours.

Unlike his predecessor Imran Khan, Prime Minister  is neither a demagogue nor a megalomaniac who lives in an alternate reality. Quite to the contrary,  is an experienced politician who understands the imperatives of improving relations with India.

While the congratulatory message of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s response was nothing out of the ordinary — it is normal for two heads of government extending courtesies — even this gesture is something of a change from the toxicity that defined the relations between the two countries during Imran Khan’s regime.

Going forward, it is to be expected that diplomatic decorum and decency, which had been thrown to the winds by the vituperative Imran Khan, will once again become the norm. This in itself would help in reducing the tensions and bitterness in the bilateral relations. More importantly, it will open the door to the possibility of some kind of engagement between the two South Asian neighbours.

There is no denying that mere change is style will not be enough to address some of the most vexing issues — territorial disputes, Kashmir issue, and of course, terrorism — that dog India-Pakistan relations. But the time has come for both the countries and in some ways Pakistan more than India, to distinguish between outstanding issues and existential issues that are threatening the very existence of that state.

Many countries around the world have issues with their neighbours. Sometimes these are territorial, other times ideological and political, and in some other cases economic or related to environment or water or other administrative issues. Though most countries manage these issues through dialogue — they don’t wage war or proxy war to force the issue. Perhaps the time has come for Pakistan to also learn from experience of other countries and while it can keep its stand on some of the outstanding issues, it should not let these poison the well of bilateral ties or make the larger relationship with India hostage to these issues.

The focus should, however, be on the existential issues, some of which are specific to Pakistan; others are common to both the South Asian neighbours. Pakistan’s economy is on the brink of failure. It is caught in a debt trap and is staring at a default. Opening up to India — trade and connectivity — would only help Pakistan get back on its feet. There is really no downside to this. Other issues like radicalism and terrorism are common challenges.

Cooperation between the two countries will enable them both to get rid of the menace of terrorism and defeat radicalism. There is also the larger strategic scenario that confronts both countries. Until now, it has been a zero-sum game between them. They have both found themselves on opposite sides of the strategic contestation between Great Powers. But if they were to work together, their negotiating position would increase vastly and they can resist being buffeted by the pulls and pressures of Great Power .