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Sharif's victory greeted with cautious optimism in India

Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh says his administration looks forward to working with the new government in Pakistan and 'charting a new course for the relationship between the two countries'.

Pakistani men in Rawalpindi read the newspapers a day after the country’s landmark general elections.
Pakistani men in Rawalpindi read the newspapers a day after the country’s landmark general elections.

NEW DELHI // India's political establishment greeted the election of Nawaz Sharif with cautious optimism yesterday, hoping that his government would help rebuild ties between the two nations.

Mr Sharif is expected to win his third term as Pakistan's prime minister, nearly 14 years after he was unseated in a military coup and exiled from his country.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh said his administration looked forward to working with the new government in Pakistan and "charting a new course for the relationship between the two countries", said a statement released by his office.

In the run-up to Saturday's elections, Mr Sharif promised to improve Pakistan's relationship with India. While acknowledging the persistence of friction over Kashmir, Mr Sharif said that it should not be an "obstacle" to more robust economic ties.

"Both countries feel the urge to solve this very important problem," he said on Indian television last week. "This issue needs to be resolved peacefully."

Mr Sharif also referred to the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, which were carried out by a team of young men trained and financed by the Lashkar-e-Taiba group in Pakistan.

"If I become prime minister, I will make sure that Pakistani soil is never used for any such design against India," Mr Sharif said. "We don't want our territory to be used for terrorist activities."

G Parthasarathy, a diplomat who served as India's High Commissioner to Pakistan between 1998 and 2000, said yesterday that India would be "more comfortable dealing with him than, say, Imran Khan".

Mr Parthasarathy said that Mr Sharif was a known quantity. In February 1999, he signed the Lahore Agreement with India, which softened the two countries' stands on nuclear war and promoted a raft of confidence-building measures.

However, shortly after the agreement was signed, India and Pakistan went to war in the Kargil district of Kashmir - a war that was planned, Mr Sharif has said, without his knowledge. Mr Sharif blamed Pakistan's army and its chief at the time, Pervez Musharraf, for triggering the conflict.

It was Mr Musharraf who subsequently deposed Mr Sharif in a coup in October 1999.

In an opinion article in the Hindustan Times newspaper last week, an Indian journalist, Barkha Dutt, wrote that "not many in India are convinced that Sharif was entirely ignorant of the army's plans as he subsequently claimed".

"But enough Pakistanis make the argument," Dutt said, "that at least part of Sharif's unpopularity with the army is his soft stance towards India and his avowal to be the architect of his own peace process this time."

Mr Parthasarathy said the elections had not yet entirely sidelined Pakistan's army from the power equations in the country. For that to happen, he said, Mr Sharif had to be "firmly ensconced".

"It depends on how he deals with his domestic problems first."

"We have to watch carefully," Mr Parthasarathy said. "There are concerns in India about the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which operates from Punjab, the heart of his constituency. He also believes that the Taliban shouldn't be excluded from the political process in Afghanistan. We have to see about that."

Some hawkish commentators, however, have called for more scepticism. An analyst, Praveen Swami, writing for the website FirstPost, insisted that Pakistan's army and its inter-services intelligence agency "clearly call the shots on India".

Mr Swami said Mr Sharif "is beholden to the dregs of Pakistan's jihadist movement, and the debt's certain to be called in". India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, would do well, Mr Swami wrote, to abandon his dream of a settled, porous border with Pakistan.

"The real lesson emerging from the election," Mr Swami wrote, "is that India needs to start erecting robust fences, not dismantling them."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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