When Nawaz Sharif was elected the prime minister of Pakistan in June 2013, Indian media outlets were largely optimistic about the development, particularly after reports emerged that he had invited the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to his swearing-in. The Hindu said Sharif “had vowed to revive the peace process which was interrupted by the then military ruler Pervez Musharraf.” The Indian Express said Sharif “has reached out to India,” while the Hindustan Times said “India has genuine reason to be pleased” by the election’s results.
The perception of camaraderie between the two countries was further boosted after Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, and Sharif accepted Modi’s invitation to attend his swearing-in. NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, who conducted an off-camera interview with Sharif, reported that he said he was keen on removing “fears, misgivings and mistrust.” He insisted that the decisive mandates that both leaders had won freed them “to turn a new page in the history of India and Pakistan.”
Other coverage of Sharif during this time, too, largely struck a favourable note. He was, for instance, reported to have attended Modi’s inauguration at the risk of inviting political attacks. A Frontline report said, “The Pakistani Premier took a couple of days to formally accept the invitation extended by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. There was speculation that he was reportedly under pressure from the country’s powerful security establishment to politely decline the invitation.”
This impression was heightened in Kathmandu in November 2014, where Sharif held a secret hour-long meeting with Modi. In her book, This Unquiet Land, Dutt reported details of this meeting, which was held on the sidelines of a SAARC summit. Among other issues, she wrote, Sharif spoke to Modi about “constrictions” imposed on him by the security establishment and how his “negotiating power with the army had been gradually whittled away.”
In part, this decline in Sharif’s standing had its origins in the events of August 2014, when tens of thousands of protesters led by Imran Khan and the cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri advanced on the Pakistani capital to demand Sharif’s resignation. Given the military’s open backing of Khan and his party, Pakistan looked set for yet another coup. But reports across the mainstream press in India suggested that Sharif staved off the takeover by striking a deal with the military. Sharif, one report said, was assured by the country’s military that there would be no coup, but that, in return, he would have to “share space with the army.”
Pakistan’s relations with India have deteriorated drastically since then, reaching a nadir in the past few months, after the attack on an army camp in Uri, so-called retaliatory “surgical strikes” by India, and a subsequent string of ceasefire violations. But many media outlets continued to view Sharif somewhat favourably, seeing him as chiefly a victim of circumstance. Even in this moment of crisis, most commentators focus on Pakistan’s armed forces, and not Sharif, as the source of rising tensions.
But a closer look at Sharif’s political career reveals a more complicated picture of him: despite being frequently portrayed as a leader inclined towards peace and cooperation, he has, in fact, been centre stage during some of the most intense flashpoints to have occurred between India and Pakistan. A combination of luck and timing has had a significant influence on how the Indian media sees Sharif—as a strong leader seeking better relations with India, who is, unfortunately, a hapless victim of the military’s meddling in the two countries’ relations.
Sharif entered politics under the shadow of the military. Starting out as a protégé of General Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, Sharif became the country’s prime minister in 1990 with monetary and other support from General Mirza Aslam Beg—as noted by the journalist Shuja Nawaz in his book Crossed Swords. It was a time when Kashmir was entering a prolonged period of insurgency, and the broadcast television market had not yet opened up in India. The news media, particularly NDTV’s Prannoy Roy (at the time, the company produced programming for Doordarshan) noted that the young leader’s personal style was aggressive and confrontationist, and that he was backed by the powerful Muslim clergy and an army that had strong Islamist influences in the aftermath of Zia’s rule.
This support led people to fear that Pakistan under Sharif would descend into a conservative spiral and that he would introduce sharia law in the country. Many Indian observers expected him to be belligerent on India—but in his first interviews, Sharif disarmed them. “I think we can live peacefully with each other,” he told Tavleen Singh, whose interview for NDTV aired in November 1990 on the Doordarshan show The World This Week. “There are certain conflicts, certain problems which need to be resolved. And I think only by mutual dialogue at the level of the leaders can be resolved. I don’t see any difficulty in at least sitting and talking about those issues.”
Relations remained tense over the following years. But Sharif won plaudits for several measures he undertook during this time. He met Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar at the SAARC summit in Male, in 1990. He ensured that foreign-secretary-level talks resumed, and that India and Pakistan re-established a hotline between their respective director generals of military operations, among other military confidence-building measures. He attended Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral in May 1991, and met Shekhar—then serving as a caretaker prime minister ahead of elections—to discuss India-Pakistan relations and the Kashmir issue in a bid to halt the “growing tension” between the two neighbours.
Sharif’s economic plans, too, gave him a positive reputation, of a reformer, as he went about privatising major industries in Pakistan, as India liberalised its own economy. Sharif told NDTV, “I see a Pakistan which invites India to come into competition on the economic front, and not get into the arms race.” Even as the situation in Kashmir continued to deteriorate, the Indian media, including the Times of India and Hindustan Times, carried reports castigating the Pakistani media for being propagandist, and the Pakistani army for instigating the conflict in the Valley, without pinning the blame on Sharif.
After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and the Bombay blasts of April 1993, relations between the countries hit rock bottom. Sharif might have faced fire, with New Delhi accusing Pakistan of harbouring suspects. But he escaped blame because he was portrayed as being caught in the political turmoil in Pakistan: first he was sacked, in April 1993, by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, and then he lost the elections, in October, to Benazir Bhutto. The liberal press, particularly NDTV, reported in his favour, casting him as a victim of a hostile president and his rival Bhutto’s political opportunism. The World This Week ran a show in May projecting him as a great democrat who had been betrayed by Bhutto.
Sharif’s second stint in power, too, beginning in 1997, saw the Indian media extend considerable benefit of doubt to him, even as he seemed determined to dominate the political landscape. He quashed the powers of the president to dismiss him—across the border, the Indian media praised him for bringing in greater democracy. The next year, he also confronted other power centres—most significantly, he sought to gain control over the military by arm-twisting his chief of army staff, General Jehangir Karamat, to resign in October 1998 and appointing Pervez Musharraf as his successor. In 1998, Sharif also tried to pass a constitutional amendment that would have enabled him to enforce sharia law in the country. This was the first major move towards institutionalising conservatism and Islamisation in Pakistan.
But India Today ran a story that seemed, at least in part, to make an apology for his politics. Sharif, it said, “still had the image of being a moderate politician, a leader who rode to power on a landslide electoral victory fought on bread and butter issues. So naturally his playing the Islamic card is seen as a desperate gamble to save his Government from collapse.”
Relations with India, meanwhile, grew strained over the two countries’ nuclear tests. After aggressive exchanges of words between the two governments, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Lahore in 1999 on Sharif’s invitation with a 150-strong media contingent. Sharif again played the man of peace and won them over by quoting from Vajpayee’s poem ‘Ab jang na hone denge’ (We will not allow war). But his gestures were undermined soon after, as the Kargil war broke out, and Sharif was blamed for betraying Vajpayee and India. (In February this year, he accepted that the occupation of Kargil by Pakistani troops was a stab in Vajpayee’s back.)
But at the time, once again, Sharif escaped ignominy in the eyes of the media because he was unseated from power in a coup by Pervez Musharraf. Sharif spent the next seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia. Even after his return to the country, in 2007, he remained a secondary figure, as the Pakistan People’s Party ruled the country. During the 26 November attack on Mumbai, which was traced to Pakistan and damaged the image of its political leadership, Sharif was in the opposition.
Now, once again, Sharif finds himself at the helm while relations between India and Pakistan deteriorate. This time, his personal reputation is also under a cloud, with the Panama leaks in April 2016 revealing that three of his children own offshore companies and assets not shown on the family’s wealth statements.
Yet, there are few commentators who take a decidedly negative view of Sharif. Among those on that side of the spectrum is the former diplomat G Parthasarathy, who wrote a column in Business Line titled “The many deceptions of Nawaz Sharif.” In it, he described Sharif as “an Islamist promoting anti-India agendas,” prone to doublespeak. “Despite having been catapulted to power by the Army,” Parthasarathy continued, “he has been at loggerheads with successive army chiefs.” He combines this analysis of Sharif with a conclusion that because Sharif is in power, the government of India should guard against “getting starry-eyed about the prospects of immediate ‘breakthroughs’ in relations with Pakistan.”
A nuanced reading of Sharif, and of India-Pakistan relations, would emphasise that the prime minister is a figure of contradictions. It would recognise that he is a conservative figure balancing between multiple agencies that are jostling for power in Pakistan, including the government, the armed forces, the intelligence agencies and the fundamentalist forces. When Sharif sounded confident about the prospects of progress in May 2014, he might have been subtly hinting at the fact that the two countries were ruled by two conservative leaders—and that, with the most radical sections of society thus represented, it would actually allow the leaders to push through compromises that might not otherwise have been possible. At the moment, however, such negotiations appear distant as the situation in Kashmir spirals out of control, and the border grows more tense than it has been in over a decade.
Sonia Trikha Shukla is a strategic affairs analyst and an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi