In an informal conversation over lunch, former Pakistan Premier Nawaz Sharif, himself the scion of a leading family of industrialists, asked whether the estranged Ambani brothers — Mukesh and Anil— continued to be among India’s richest? And in the formal interview, he promised to lead, not merely follow, the PPP-led regime in normalising relations and building stronger trade ties with India. Excerpts:
Q) Does your assurance that the PML-N’s will be a constructive Opposition mean you will not oppose the government for the sake of opposition?
We will extend full support to whatever the PPP does to strengthen democratic institutions. We will not allow extra-democratic forces to take advantage of the separation of the two main parties. But I’m disappointed by Asif Zardari’s failure to honour his commitment to restore the dismissed judges. He wriggled out, not once but thrice.
Q) The PPP-PML split has left India concerned about political stability in Pakistan.
We were forced to leave the coalition. I’m personally very disturbed about it. But we are committed not to destabilise the government. They do not have anywhere near a simple majority (of their own). They depend on smaller parties and certain individuals. They are worried. Yet, we will never destabilise their government or bring a motion of no-confidence.
Q) What does that mean for Indo-Pak relations? Will your back the peace dialogue?
We will not be behind the PPP. We’ll lead the PPP for better relations and confidence between our two countries. At the same time, we are concerned about the deteriorating situation in Kashmir. We should be very serious now in resolving this issue. Whenever a situation like this develops in Kashmir, it does affect, whether we admit or not, the relationship of our two countries.
Q) As one who stands for peace, will you visit India to engage with its leadership?
I’ll be very happy to play that role provided it’s productive and provided that sort of a role is accepted because I’m not holding any office.
Q) That’s also your strength….
Yes. If any such initiative is taken by India or the Pakistan government, it will have my full support.
Q) Pakistan’s new trade policy envisages major imports from India. Isn’t it a great idea to open up and so to speak, break bread together, exchanging commodities in short supply on either side?
That will be like a dream come true. AB Vajpayee’s 1999 visit was a landmark in our relations. My government can take credit for the first State visit of any Indian PM to Pakistan. We discussed all key issues with great seriousness. You are talking about an agenda I left unfinished. I would like to see it culminating.
Q) Your 1996-97 electoral victory was on the promise of repairing Pakistan’s economy and its relations with India….
The PPP’s campaign was based on India-bashing. Ours was for Pakistan-India friendship. That paid. We got two-thirds majority (laughs).
Q) Would you assure that our bilateral relations don’t get caught in competitive politics or retrograde rhetoric?
I have just quoted an example. Even today, I talk about the same manifesto. At the same time, I’d stress very hard on Kashmir. It’s in our mutual interest that we reach a solution acceptable to India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir. We must get it out of our way. The field, then, will be wide open.
Q) Does it mean that other issues will have to wait until Kashmir is settled?
Other issues can be taken up simultaneously.
Q) How high should betterment of Indo-Pak relations be on the PPP agenda?
It is one of the top issues.
Q) You want Parliament to evolve a collective Pakistani response to the terrorist threat…
I was most disturbed by the 9/11 (attacks in the US) and after the 7/7 events in London. I’m very disturbed when something of the same order happens in India or Pakistan. We are in a severe grip of terrorism in this country. Bomb explosions are killing innocent people. The toll has run into thousands. The policy that comes from Parliament will effectively deal with the problem.
Q) That includes dialogue (with militant groups) ….
You cannot rule out dialogue.
Q) Pakistan cannot fight terrorism in isolation when large parts of South Asia are similarly threatened. What about a regional front against terror?
There has to be a meeting of minds — with the West, within South Asia and between Pakistan and India. We all are very seriously affected. I will not rule out the option. We must discuss it across the table.
Q) Is a meeting of minds possible with the Indian leadership?
It’s a noble cause needing implementation in letter and spirit. I have the highest of regards for the Indian leadership. I had very good rapport with Vajpayee though Kargil was a very tragic incident. The same is true of Sonia Gandhi sahiba and Manmohan Singh. I will be very happy to work with them.
Q) Will you work with Zardari to ensure that there is no repeat of Kargil?
Any time, any time…
Q) Your Rightist (religio-political) leanings cause worry in certain quarters…
I’m neither Left nor Right. Mine is the straight democratic path.
7 months ago