Nawaz Sharif, poised to become prime minister for a third time after a decisive victory in Pakistan’s election, has declared that the mistrust that has long dogged relations with India must be tackled.
Mr Sharif said he had a “long chat” with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday and the two exchanged invitations to visit – a diplomatic nicety in some parts of the world, but a heavily symbolic step for South Asia’s arch-rivals.
Asked by an Indian journalist at a news conference yesterday if he would invite Mr Singh to his swearing-in as prime minister, Mr Sharif said: “I will be very happy to extend that invitation.”
He added: “There are fears on your side, there are fears on our side. We have to seriously address this.”
Mr Sharif’s power base is Pakistan’s most prosperous province, Punjab, which sits across the border from the Indian state of the same name. He wants to see trade between the two countries unshackled, and he has a history of making conciliatory gestures towards New Delhi.
In 1999, when he was last prime minister, Mr Sharif stood at the frontier post waiting to welcome his counterpart, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to arrive on the inaugural run of a bus service between New Delhi and Lahore.
It was a moment of high hope for two countries who were divided amid bloodshed at birth in 1947 and went to war three times in the decades that followed. But by May 1999, the two sides were sucked into a new conflict as the then-army chief of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, sent forces across the line dividing the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. By October, Mr Sharif had been felled by Gen Musharraf in a bloodless coup.
Mr Sharif’s return to power has raised concerns that he will again cross swords with the military. But he said he “never had any trouble with the army”, just Gen Musharraf, and as prime minister he would ensure that the military and the civilian government work together.
Gen Musharraf resigned as president in 2008 and went into self-imposed exile abroad. He returned in March, aiming to run in last Saturday’s elections. But instead he was arrested over his crackdown on the judiciary during his time in power and put under house arrest.
Mr Sharif said his Pakistan Muslim League won enough of the 272 National Assembly seats contested to rule on its own, but suggested he was open to allies joining his government.
He said yesterday: “I am not against any coalition. But as far as Islamabad is concerned, we are ourselves in a position to form our own government. All those who share our vision, we will be happy to work with them.”
The election was a democratic milestone in a country ruled by the military for more than half its history, marking the first transition from one elected government to another.
However, Mr Sharif inherits a stack of challenges from a government which failed to tackle corruption, poverty and a Taleban insurgency.
Mr Sharif said ahead of the election that Pakistan should reconsider its support for the US war on Islamist militancy and suggested he was in favour of negotiations with the Taleban.
Pakistan backed American efforts to stamp out global militancy after the 11 September, 2001, attacks on the US and was rewarded with billions of dollars in aid. But many Pakistanis have grown resentful, saying thousands of Pakistani soldiers have died fighting “America’s war”.
Mr Sharif chose his words carefully yesterday.
Asked about US drone strikes against militants on Pakistani soil, which many Pakistanis regard as a violation of sovereignty, he referred to it as a “challenge” to sovereignty.
“We will sit with our American friends and talk to them about this issue,” he said.