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Can Sharif seize the moment with India?

That moment, again


As a special Indian envoy makes the rounds, Nawaz Sharif surely realises it's a great time to restart peace talks?

Nawaz Sharif has had a good week. He began it playing host to Satinder Lambah, the grand old man of India's Af-Pak policy and ended the week quietly celebrating the drone death of Waliur Rehman, the reputed brain behind the Hakimullah Mehsud -led TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan).

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been accused of being soft on Pakistan and focusing his policy with that neighbour on a visit to his native village, Gah, which he left to migrate to India after partition. To a great extent, that may well be correct. He may still want to return to Gah. But we would be missing the picture if we believe that's all he's interested in. And that is why the recent visit by Lambah to Lahore was important.

Wali-ur-Rehman's death is a huge relief for Nawaz Sharif. His biggest security problem as he prepares to be sworn in as Pakistan's next prime minister is the indiscriminate terror unleashed by the TTP. In the run-up to the elections, TTP announced they would go after "secular" parties. The elections therefore, were barely fair - because candidates from parties like PPP and ANP basically sat out these elections. Sharif's PML(N) and Imran Khan's PTI were spared because these parties occupy the right-wing space anyway.

Mohammed Hanif, a best-selling Pakistani author observed after the elections, "In his five years rule in Punjab, Sharif's party has had one policy about the Pakistani Taliban who have been wreaking havoc in parts of Pakistan: please go and do your business elsewhere. And they have generally obliged. But now that he is set to rule all of Pakistan, what's he going to tell them?" The death of Wali-ur Rehman gives him that respite. Sharif has to find a way of neutralising the Pakistan Taliban. He now has an opportunity to do something worthwhile.

Of greater importance to India was Lambah's visit to see Sharif in Lahore. Lambah enjoys enormous personal cache with the Sharifs, so it was not surprising that he was sent by the PM instead of the official channels - of foreign secretary or NSA. Besides, nobody understands better than Lambah the opportunities and challenges of dealing with Sharif's Pakistan. Having been the special envoy for Afghanistan for some time now, Lambah has a deep view of what this region would look like post 2014.

Of all the countries worried about the day after, Pakistan has the most reasons to do so. What happens, for instance, if the idea of "strategic depth" finally takes shape, with the Taliban using Afghan territory across the Durand Line to trouble Pakistan? It would be the king of all ironies. If the Taliban are indeed winning the war, as Pakistani analysts love to point out, what does that say about Pakistan's guests and Pakistan's future?

There is a new generation of Taliban leaders, not all of them are as enamoured of the ISI's strong-arm tactics as they should be. The US State Department's annual terrorism report, issued on Thursday, observed, "The al-Qaida (AQ) core still has the ability to inspire, plot, and launch regional and transnational attacks from its safe haven in Western Pakistan, despite its leadership losses.

Along with AQ, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and other like-minded groups continue to conduct operations against US, coalition, Afghan, and Pakistani interests from safe havens on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Other South Asian terrorist organisations, including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), cite US interests as legitimate targets for attacks. LeT, the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, continues to pose a serious threat to regional stability. "

That should be giving Nawaz Sharif sleepless nights. Not India. And that would have been the core of the message Lambah would have taken to Sharif.

Manmohan Singh may not be able to travel to Pakistan just yet. But Sharif may make a trip across the border in the near future. He should realise that the most valuable thing he could bring with him would be the clearance for most-favoured nation (MFN) status for India. This has been hopelessly overdue. The Zardari government worked on it, and if Sharif can escort it to the last mile, he will reap the benefits. Even with the minimal liberalisation currently in place, Pakistan's exports to India grew by 28 per cent last year as against 19 per cent by India. So much for the fear that India would swamp Pakistan's markets.

More trade, more business is the current mantra. But the million dollar question is whether Lambah raised a far more sensitive subject: the resurrection of the peace process, the most important part of which was the back-channel negotiations on Kashmir Lambah himself conducted between 2004 and 2007.

Lambah has the mandate to test the waters on this one with Sharif even though the current army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani is not enthusiastic about it at all.

But there will be a new chief in November, and a new chief justice. Can Sharif seize the moment with India?

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