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A new Sharif in town

What does Nawaz Sharif’s victory mean for India?

The Pakistan Muslim League (N) has emerged as a decisive winner in Pakistan’s general elections held on May 11.  The embattled incumbent, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was routed in Punjab, and save for Sindh (which accounted for 29 of 32 seats won by the PPP) failed to make an impact in any other province.  Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) succeeded in bringing out first-time voters, but managed to win a majority only in Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

The religious jamaats Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal-ur-Rehman (JUI(F)) failed to make an impact.  And while the elections themselves were largely successful, voter turnout in Balochistan was between 15-20 less than 3 per cent, further accentuating the troubled province’s security situation and disenchantment with the Pakistani state.

But what does all this mean to India?

Nawaz Sharif, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal days before the election, indicated that he wanted to improve ties with India and the U.S.  In this regard, it is quite possible that the long-delayed granting of Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to India will be approved within Mr. Sharif’s first few months in office.  However, it is important that policy makers in India not read too much into what is essentially a symbolic gesture of little real consequence to India.

For India, it is important to remember that the height of the Kashmir insurgency flourished during Pakistan’s most “democratic” decade — the 1990s.  Pakistan test-fired its “Islamic” nuclear bomb and waged an undeclared war on India in Kargil during democratic regimes.  Indeed, it proliferated nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya during periods of democracy. So much for those who say a democratic Pakistan is in India’s interests.

In the larger context of India-Pakistan relations, Mr. Sharif’s ascent to the position of prime minister is of minimal consequence.  Indeed, more important transitions in power lie ahead in the next couple of years that will impact the India-Pakistan relationship.

The most important of these transitions on the Pakistani side is the end of Gen. Kayani’s tenure as COAS on October 31, 2013.  The Pakistani army has had monopoly over relations with India since the 1958 coup d’état.  This has been true regardless of whether the army or a civilian government was in charge of Pakistan.

The frontrunners for the position of COAS have among them Kayani-loyalists, American favorites, and Kargil veterans alike.  The eventual winner will have a greater say in Pakistan’s relations with India than Mr. Sharif, regardless of the decisiveness of the PML(N)’s democratic mandate.

On this side of the barbed-wire fence, India goes to poll in mid-2014.  This leaves the UPA with very little capital for grand, unilateral gestures that might ultimately impair India’s national interests.  There are too many imponderables at play for conclusive assessments on how the 2014 Lok Sabha elections will play out.  Can the UPA and the Congress retain power, mired as they are in scandals?  If they do, what role will prime minister Manmohan Singh play in a future government?  If strong anti-incumbency trends emerge, what position vis-a-vis Pakistan will a BJP-led coalition take?

Both prime ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have dealt with Pakistan-perpetrated attacks (the Kandahar hijacking, 13/12, 26/11, among others).  Both inevitably came around to rapprochement with Pakistan.  But if provocations remain abetted, shouldn’t the quality of our response change?

A third, and equally important transition, involves Afghanistan. U.S.-led coalition forces are scheduled to withdraw from a decade-long war in Afghanistan at the end of 2014.  While unresolved quarrels with Afghanistan persist, Pakistan sees the withdrawal of U.S. forces as largely benefiting its cause.  But a U.S. retreat could see the return of thousands of unemployed jihadis whose “talents” are better engaged elsewhere than in Pakistan.  That elsewhere might be Jammu & Kashmir.

An increase in terror-related violence in India, leading up to, and accelerating after U.S. withdrawal in 2014 will indicate that the Pakistani establishment’s animosity towards India remains intact and is about to enter a new phase.  What someone like Nawaz Sharif can do in such a scenario, regardless of honorable intentions, will remain a question mark.  Those in charge of India’s foreign policy, ought to be considering policy options on Pakistan, expecting worst-case scenarios, given lessons learned from history. Democracy or no democracy.

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6 Responses to A new Sharif in town

  1. @voltaire May 12, 2013 at 10:55 pm #

    RT @filter_c: My piece: A new Sharif in town | More important transitions are ahead in India & Pakistan than Nawaz Sharif’s win. http://t.co/hB8PdriVWQ

  2. Asma Rizwan (@asmariz) May 13, 2013 at 2:13 am #

    RT @filter_c: My piece: A new Sharif in town | More important transitions are ahead in India & Pakistan than Nawaz Sharif’s win. http://t.co/hB8PdriVWQ

  3. Pavan Srinath (@zeusisdead) (@zeusisdead) May 13, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    RT @filter_c: Replugging my piece: A new Sharif in town | More important transitions are ahead than Nawaz Sharif’s win. http://t.co/hB8PdriVWQ

  4. Pavan Srinath May 13, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    Leaving India out of the picture for a while, what does Sharif mean for the civil-military equation in Pakistan? I don’t expect anything close to sweeping changes in the power balance, but is Sharif better suited than others to wrest back some control, given his past tenure as a Prime Minister?

    • Rohan Joshi May 13, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

      Pavan — He’s had a notorious reputation for “meddling” in the affairs of the army during his previous tenures. One such hand-picked appointee – DG-ISI Javed Nasir – waged his own private jihad in Bosnia and Xinjiang and was eventually forced out by Nawaz on account of pressure from the U.S.

      His other hand-picked appointee was Musharraf, and we know how that worked out. With that said, I don’t think he will quite as cavalier in dealing with the military establishment. The red lines Kayani has drawn are apparent to Pakistan’s political class. I doubt Sharif has the will or capacity to breach them.

  5. Abstract Thoughts! (@VamseeMusings) May 13, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    RT @filter_c: Replugging my piece: A new Sharif in town | More important transitions are ahead than Nawaz Sharif’s win. http://t.co/hB8PdriVWQ

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