Where Does India Stand?
THE convincing victory of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) in the recent election under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif will hopefully mark the beginning of a new era in Pakistan. During the election campaign, nearly all the parties had campaigned for improving relations with India. Their manifestos indicated a growing consensus among politicians for a detente with this country. Mr Sharif&’s party went to the extent of saying that it would open the trade route between India, Afghanistan and beyond through Pakistan.
Both the political class and the intelligentsia in Pakistan seem to have realised that China, its most trusted all-weather ally, will not be able to bail the country out. Its salvation lies in strengthening ties with India and taking advantage of its growing economy.
The run-up to the election was particularly violent. The Pakistani Taliban targeted the secular parties to disrupt the tryst with democracy. Over 100 political activists, including some candidates, were killed. Perhaps because of a tacit understanding, the terrorists did not attack the rallies of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. The violence did not dampen the enthusiasm of the voters, however. The turnout was high, with 60 per cent of the electorate exercising its franchise. While the Pakistan People&’s Party and the Awami National Party (ANP) accepted the drubbing they suffered, Imran Khan&’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which won only 34 seats in the National Assembly, alleged widespread rigging. Imran tried to woo the young and apolitical voters, but he could not make a dent in Sharif&’s stronghold of Punjab. In popular perception, the PTI is a one-man show rather than a party. Further, Imran could not break the biradari structure of Pakistan politics. It is one thing to rant against corruption and patronage-based politicians; quite another to offer a viable democratic alternative. However, the PTI has fared impressively in Khyber Pukhtunkhawa.
During post-election press conferences and television interviews, Nawaz Sharif has indicated that he wants to mend fences and improve relations with India. As a successful businessman, he is aware that better trade relations will benefit Pakistan. Its economy has done well in terms of trade and India is quite obviously the only market to be tapped. Indian imports will be cheaper and help Pakistan tackle inflation. He may even take steps to grant the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India. However, resistance from the army cannot be ruled out.
President Zardari was also keen on improving ties with India, but he was thwarted by the establishment and could not do much. With his strong mandate from the Punjab, Sharif is in a better position to do something more substantial than Zardari. In an interview to the Wall Street Journal, he signalled his intent “to pick up the threads where they were left” and resolve the remaining issues with India through peaceful means. He has gone to the extent of saying that if he comes to power he would share the reports on the Kargil operations and the Mumbai outrage with India. He has stated that he will seek to assert civilian supremacy over the army. How far he will be able to do so is, of course, open to question.
The military establishment will vociferously oppose such initiatives because it will denude the army&’s pre-eminent position in the country and also dent its image as the saviour of Pakistan. It will also threaten the army&’s economic empire built up over the years. Beyond a point, it will not allow the humiliation of the former Army Chief, Pervez Musharraf, now imprisoned in his farmhouse. Nor for that matter will it allow a thorough probe into the Kargil incursion because of the fear that skeletons will tumble out of the cupboard. Perhaps it will be wiser for Sharif to allow them to rest there. Should the need arise, the army might use the terrorists and take the help of Imran Khan to settle scores with Nawaz Sharif.
To improve relations with India, Sharif will have to rein in the jihadi outfits such as Lashkar-i-Toiba and Lashkar-i-Jangvi, which are operating against India from within Pakistan. Before the election, Sharif&’s party had concluded behind-the-scene agreements with many of the jihadi entities. His brother, Shahbaz Sharif&’s government in Punjab secured the help of the banned anti-Shia outfits, notably the Sipah-e-Salva.
The Prime Minister has cordial relations with the Lashkar chief, Hafiz Sayeed. The extent to which he will be able to exercise control over the jihadi outfits remains to be seen. These groups have developed vested interests and wield considerable influence in rural Punjab. They will not abjure violence so readily. If thwarted, they may even turn against the master. At best, there could be a measure of calculated remission but not elimination of the jihadi terror threat.
Sharif will also have to reach out to the leaders of other provinces to maintain national unity. The province of Punjab has traditionally dominated the country&’s armed forces, judiciary and the civil services. If the trend persists under a democratic dispensation, it is bound to be resisted by the smaller ethnic groups. It is significant that despite the high turnout overall, very few voted in the volatile province of Baluchistan. Indeed, the regional split between the Punjab and other provinces has been accentuated.
In Afghanistan, it remains to be seen whether Sharif endorses the army&’s policy of supporting the Taliban to secure a “strategic depth” for Pakistan. Both the military and the bureaucracy believe that Pakistan deserves a proprietary role in Afghanistan. The Taliban&’s efforts ~ with the support of Pakistan ~ to gain complete ascendancy in Afghanistan might ignite a civil war that could endanger Pakistan.
India has no place in Pakistan&’s vision of Afghanistan, post the pullout of US troops. And this is unlikely to change. Instead of being overly optimistic, India ought to observe the evolution of developments in Pakistan. Sharif will first have to strengthen his position within the country and then initiate his promised change in dealings with India. Till then, Delhi would do well to wait and watch.
The writer is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences; former Director-General, National Human Rights Commission; and former Director, National Police Academy