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NEW DELHI: Cautious optimism has emerged in India as Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif took office, with analysts saying the political change in Islamabad may 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 that both claim in full but rule in part, and over which they have fought three wars in the past seven decades.

Tension over Kashmir led to ties between the nuclear-armed neighbors being frozen during the leadership of Sharif’s predecessor, Imran Khan.

In August 2019, after the Indian government stripped the autonomous status of the Kashmiri territory under its administration, and removed inherited protections on land and jobs, Islamabad downgraded its diplomatic relations with New Delhi and suspended bilateral trade.

When Sharif took the oath of office on Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first world leaders to congratulate him, saying that India “desires peace and stability.”

Sharif also spoke in a reconciliatory tone, saying that Pakistan wanted “good relations with India,” as he outlined his administration’s foreign policy priorities. But he also said that would require a “just solution to the Kashmir dispute” and that he would raise the Kashmiri issue in all forums. 

Indian observers were divided over Sharif’s statement, but most saw room for dialogue.

“It is difficult for the Pakistani PM not to raise the Kashmir issue. There is no incentive for him not to raise it,” Manoj Joshi, of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, told Arab News.

“We should not overstate that statement. As an incoming PM he has to make that statement. 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 reached a climax 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 general elections are due.

Pravin Sawhney, editor of the defense and security magazine Force, said that there are “very bright prospects of dialogue” as soon as Pakistan’s political situation stabilizes after the recent crisis.

“There is a bit of instability in Pakistan. When things become stable then talks will start,” he said, adding that with the coming of the new Pakistani prime minister, it will be Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who will be “running the show.”

In March 2021, Bajwa called on both nations to bury the past after their militaries released 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 fire has claimed hundreds of lives.

“Bajwa started the ceasefire,” Sawhney added. “And he repeatedly said 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 ties, although he said there is “some hope of resumption of dialogue between two nations.”

Desai said that the relationship might get better if efforts are focused on restoring trade — as it was when Sharif’s elder brother and Khan’s immediate predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, was in office.

“Nawaz Sharif, when he was PM, gave importance to trade between two nations. It helped both. The beginning with trade is quite possible,” Desai told Arab News.

“I believe, let us 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 contact. Most important is it to develop confidence.”

But some say that while Pakistan under Sharif might be willing to talk to India, obstacles in the process may come from New Delhi.

“Pakistan PM Sharif’s mention of Kashmir certainly precludes the possibility of any rapprochement, as India after the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A refuses to recognize Kashmir as a disputed issue,” Sanjay Kapoor, chief editor of the political magazine Hard News, said. “If Sharif decides to recognize the new changes, the possibility of talk is there. Not otherwise.”

In Kashmir, prospects of improvement are dim, as they would require solving not only the issue of the Indian-controlled part of the territory, but also of the larger Kashmir.

Kashmir, the northernmost geographical region of the Indian subcontinent, encompasses an area that includes Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, and the Pakistani-administered territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

“We in Kashmir have known for a long time that peace between the two countries is of paramount importance for the resolution of the conundrum that is Jammu and Kashmir,” historian and international affairs expert Prof. Siddiq Wahid, said.

“But equally important requirements are those of honesty and transparency in the event they do resume a dialogue. Honesty here would require addressing all of Jammu and Kashmir, including Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh. And transparency would involve taking all the peoples of the territories of erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into confidence before and during their dialogue,” he added.

“These elements have been missing in all dialogues so far.”

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