Just before Prime Minister Vajpayee’s “Lahore Bus Yatra”, his predecessor Inder Gujral told me that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appeared to be a realistic, reasonable and rational leader. He recalled a conversation on Jammu and Kashmir; Sharif, a Kashmiri hailing from Anantnag, who was known to be an uncompromising hardliner on Kashmir, had realistically remarked: “ Hum janthein hain ki hamKashmiraapse lein nahin sakte aur aap humkoKashmirdein nahin sakte” .

(“I know we cannot seize Kashmir from you and you cannot give Kashmir to us”.) Sharif’s comments were made after his election in 1997 when, with his patronage, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed emerged as the most influential jihadi leader in Pakistan, dedicated to “unfurling the green flag of Islam in New Delhi, Washington and Tel Aviv”.

Bonding over Bollywood

Sharif was an impeccable host when Vajpayee visited Lahore. He is a great fan of Bollywood films and loves listening to Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar.

These hits were played during a lunch Sharif hosted for Vajpayee. But his authoritarian streak was evident when he refused to allow the Leader of the Opposition Benazir Bhutto to meet Vajpayee. Moreover, unknown to Indian intelligence and the army, units of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry were being infiltrated across the Line of Control in J&K. Despite his denials, there is evidence that Sharif was briefed about these deliberate transgressions of the LoC, both in Rawalpindi and Skardu. Did he not see the contradiction between embracing Vajpayee, on the one hand, and urging the Pakistan army to cross the LoC, on the other?

On February 12, 1993 multiple bomb blasts rocked Mumbai, resulting in 350 fatalities and around 1,200 injured.

While Mumbai mafia don Dawood Ibrahim, now resident in Karachi, allegedly organised the explosions, the trail led to the involvement of Sharif’s handpicked ISI Chief, Lt Gen Javed Nasir. The attack was also a prelude to Sharif’s ouster by then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Army Chief Gen Kakkar.

Despite what Sharif told Gujral, the reality is that he has not hesitated to raise the issue of Kashmir at every conceivable occasion in Pakistan and when abroad. Sharif has for long sought to present Kashmir in the Islamic World as an issue of occupation of Muslim lands.

Whether he would be amenable to adopting a more realistic path, in keeping with what he told Gujral, remains to be seen. Sharif entered politics as a protégé of President Zia ul Haq and Zia’s Governor of Punjab Lt Gen Ghulam Jilani Khan. His father, long persecuted by Bhutto, was a natural ally of Zia’s military regime.

After a brief tenure as Chief Minister of Punjab, Sharif was catapulted to power as Prime Minister in 1990, heading an alliance of Islamist parties put together by Army Chief Gen Aslam Beg and ISI Chief Lt. Gen Asad Durrani.

But the strange thing about Sharif is that, despite having been catapulted to power by the Army, he has been at loggerheads with successive army chiefs.

The Islamist connection

During his first term he was accused by the wife of Army Chief Asif Nawaz of being responsible for the General’s death.

He was then sacked by Nawaz’s successor Waheed Kakkar following differences with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.

In his second term, he chose to sack the mild-mannered Army Chief, Gen Jehangir Karamat. Gen Musharraf, whom he appointed to replace Karamat, ousted him from power before incarcerating and exiling him to Saudi Arabia, over differences on who should take the blame for the Kargil fiasco.

Even in his third term, Sharif’s relations with his handpicked Army Chief Raheel Sharif have been uneasy, over the manner in which Gen Musharraf is being treated in cases filed against him. Disregarding the advice of the army, Sharif has got involved in an uncertain “peace process” with the Tehriq e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Sharif is involved in a political contest with Imran Khan about who is the greater supporter of extremist Sunni Islamist outfits. Matters are complicated by the symbiotic relationship between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban. An already volatile situation along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is set to become even more tense and complicated.

The prevailing situation can only strengthen the Wahhabi-oriented extremist armed groups in Pakistan, as Sharif and Imran Khan compete for political space across the radical Islamic right. Given the sullen mood in the army, which has its own axes to grind when it comes to its projects of “bleeding India with a thousand cuts” and seeking “strategic depth” via the Taliban in Afghanistan, the present situation is a recipe for the breakdown of governance in large parts of Pakistan.

Sadly, few of our national leaders, perhaps with the exception of Narasimha Rao, understood how to deal with a complex personality like Nawaz Sharif.

As a new Government is scheduled to assume office soon in South Block, it will hopefully avoid getting starry-eyed about the prospects of immediate “breakthroughs” in relations with Pakistan.

The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.