India - Pakistan: Nawaz Sharif can Improve Ties with India Only as Far as the Army Allows


India - Pakistan: Nawaz Sharif can Improve Ties with India Only as Far as the Army Allows

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s return is at a time when Pakistan’s external and internal political stability challenges continue to mount. At the same time, the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan are hardly enamoured of Pakistan’s efforts to send back lakhs of Afghan refugees who virtually made Pakistan their homeland.

Importantly, writes Kamal Davar ( retired Lieutenant General and security expert who served as the first director general of the Defense Intelligence Agency and deputy chief of the Integrated Defense Staff) “Pakistan’s relations with its western neighbour, a rising and globally important India, are at a low ebb, with many in Pakistan’s civil society clamouring for improving relations, especially in trade and travel, with India. The Army leadership is more than aware of what it loses with its short-sighted bigoted policies on India. However, it has consistently refused to change tack, except during Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s tenure as Army Chief and President of Pakistan, when relations between the two nations had acquired some form of normalcy. Many strategic analysts in the subcontinent have suggested that, in recent times, Nawaz Sharif does carry some ability to improve India-Pakistan relations from the rock bottom levels it is currently enmeshed in. However, Nawaz Sharif, in case he comes to power with the support of the Pakistan Army, will be able to mend India-Pakistan relations only as much as the crafty and formidable Pakistani generals allow him to. Thus, keeping the past track record of Pakistani generals in mind, it is safe to say that improvement in the relationship between the two nations is most likely to be a mirage. However, India being the largest and most powerful South Asian nation, without letting its guard down, should continue to strive for a peaceful and more harmonious region.”


Economically, a hard period in Pakistan

Writing about economically hard period that Pakistan is going through, G Parthasarathy (Chancellor, Jammu Central University & former High Commissioner to Pakistan) states “It has experienced an extraordinarily low annual growth rate of minus 0.5 per cent amid spiralling inflation, which is currently estimated at 29.6 per cent. Current interest rates, now estimated at 22 per cent, are playing havoc with business activity. Barely a few weeks ago, Pakistan’s Central Bank announced that foreign exchange resources had fallen to $4.19 billion, just adequate for one month of tightly regulated imports. This has been a nightmare not just for economists but also for the masses, even as torrential rain and unprecedented flashfloods last year hit 33 million people across the country. The floods resulted in the loss of an estimated 10,000 lives and economic losses amounting to an estimated $10 billion.”

Pakistan remains dependent on bailouts from the IMF and periodic gestures of financial assistance from friendly Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE.


Pakistan in the election mode: India watches role of Army

The country is, meanwhile, in the election mode, with the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2024. One can expect, writes Parthasarathy “that Pakistan’s electoral machinery, with due backing from the law and order machinery and the Army, will create the conditions required to successfully hold the elections. The army is going to continue having a difficult time,” with the charismatic Imran. Imran remaining “widely popular in Pakistan even a year and a half after being ousted from office.”

In this scenario, India is keenly watching developments.   The army, naturally, is the key and its attitude will matter.  The former army chief General Bajwa was not “pathologically anti-Indian. He was prepared to improve relations with India. He was known to be close to the US and even approved arms sales by Pakistan to Ukraine at America’s behest. This action certainly helped Pakistan in getting US cooperation for IMF assistance and saving it from bankruptcy."

It remains to be seen, writes Parthasarathy “if General Munir can show the realism of General Bajwa or prefer the disastrous route taken by Gen Yahya Khan in 1971. He also needs to remember that peace prevailed in relations with India and considerable progress was made in addressing the issue of Jammu and Kashmir during the rule of General Musharraf. This was after the Kargil disaster, which he had spearheaded, taught him the futility and dangers of promoting or provoking a conflict with India. General Munir appears to have built a reputation of issuing strong statements on India. There have also been firing and infiltration across the international border along the LoC recently."

India hopes  that General Munir will take a realistic view of Pakistan’s economic needs and limitations. The next year will be dominated by parliamentary elections in India and Pakistan. “Unlike the broad national consensus that prevails in India on issues of foreign and security policies, the continuing dominance of the army makes it difficult to analyse which direction Pakistan will take after a new government assumes office…”


Nothing should be expected on the India-Pakistan front till after  the domestic elections

The presence Sharif  in Pakistan, writes Vivek Katju  (former diplomat) “is potentially significant for the country’s politics but not its polity; nor is it likely to transform the contours of its foreign and security policies, especially its obsession with India…..”

He says this because the military, as the dominant institution in Pakistan’s polity, will ensure that Pakistan’s India policy will ultimately remain with it.

In the past, Sharif  “convinced some of his Indian counterparts that he was trying to curb the army’s ‘interference’ in his governments’ decision-making on India. He did so with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee….”

But, writes Katju, “Nawaz Sharif undoubtedly shares the army’s strong feelings on Jammu and Kashmir. However, unlike the army, in the past, he believed that Pakistan could both pursue a hard line on J&K and normalise commercial and economic ties with India…” This did not happen and may not this time around.

As of now the focus of both countries will become increasingly domestic. National elections will be held in the first half of 2024 in India, as also in Pakistan, even if they are delayed beyond January. “Nothing should therefore be expected on the India-Pakistan front till after their conclusion,” concludes Katju.

All Neighbours Article