By Mayuri Mukherjee
16 May 2013
New Delhi has many reasons to welcome Nawaz Sharif's third term as Prime Minister. However, this does not mean that India can throw caution to the winds and let down its guard. The Pakistani Army is still strongly entrenched in its anti-India posture, and so is the ISI
On May 11, as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan went to the poll to elect a new Government, democracy in that country received its strongest booster shot yet. For the first time since the country came into existence 67 years ago, one popularly elected regime had completed its full five-year term and was handing over power to another popularly elected entity. The socio-political and strategic import of this historic transition cannot be underestimated — especially, given that the election was held under the shadow of death and terror.
In the run-up to the poll, several candidates, including those from mainstream political parties, were killed by the Pakistani Taliban mostly in drive-by shootings. The ‘bad Taliban’, as the group is often labelled, had made it amply clear that it considered voting un-Islamic and, therefore, targeted leaders and voters alike right up to election day with sickening regularity. That the people of Pakistan still went to the polling stations in large numbers — the Election Commission noted a turn-out of nearly 60 per cent — and in the process thumbed their nose at the Taliban, is heartening indeed, not just for Pakistan but also for India.
In fact, with Mr Nawaz Sharif now returning to power in Islamabad — his PML(N) swept the election and won a comfortable 123 of the 272 seats in the National Assembly — India could have scarcely asked for a more favourable electoral result from Pakistan. The 63-year-old who has already been in the top job twice earlier, has been very vocal in his support for India, and has repeatedly and publicly said that improving bilateral ties between the countries is among his priorities.
Undoubtedly, the most pro-India of all the candidates, Mr Sharif had, as the Prime Minister in 1999, signed the historic Lahore Declaration with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which was supposed to usher in a new era in India-Pakistan relations. However, that didn’t happen as Mr Sharif himself became the victim of a military coup and was ousted from office. Now, as he returns to power in Islamabad, he has promised to pick up the pieces from where he had left. He has also promised, for instance, to bring to justice those who mounted the 26/11 terror attack on India.
All this has naturally been well-received in India which can surely do with a little less venom and bad blood flowing from across the border. Towards that end, New Delhi has good enough reason to welcome Mr Sharif’s third term as Prime Minister. However, this does not mean that India can throw caution to the winds and let down its guard.
Mr Sharif is surely the best that India could have hoped for, but he is neither a saint nor a super-human. There are skeletons in his cupboard too. For instance, let us not forget that, if Mr Sharif helped script the Lahore Declaration, it was also during his rule that the Kargil conflict happened. Of course, Mr Sharif has consistently held that the military misadventure was planned behind his back by his treacherous Army chief Pervez Musharraf. But General Musharraf has claimed otherwise, going so far as to say that five days before Mr Sharif met Mr Vajpayee in Lahore, he had been briefed by the Army about the mission.
Either way, the Kargil conflict makes Mr Sharif look really bad. If he knew about the attack, then he is exposed as a duplicitous character. And if didn’t know about the attack, then he comes across as a weak and ineffective Prime Minister who didn’t known what his own Army was up to. And even by Pakistan’s standards of civil-military relations, that is a bit too much to accept at face value. Still, if this was indeed the case, one must ask if things will be any different this time around.
As of now, there are no indications as to how Mr Sharif will define his Government’s relationship with the country’s military. It is true that given his own bitter experience with the Army, he may try harder than others to curb the latter’s influence but with what degree of success, remains an open question. Also, in this context it is important to dismiss the notion that has been doing the rounds of late that the military is backing out of Pakistan’s political space or will be reluctant to interfere like before in the functioning of the new civilian Government because of popular resistance. First, the military has never cared about daily administration issues as long as its own interests have remained secured. This is true not just in Pakistan but even in other countries where the military has played a domineering role in public life — such as in Egypt, for example.
Second, the Pakistani military has done nothing to suggest that it will concede any strategic space to the newly elected Government. On the contrary, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s much-hyped media briefing prior to the election proved that the military was very much a political force to contend with. Even though the meeting with journalists was organised to put out the Army’s official story supporting democracy and popular representation et al, it quickly devolved into a session critiquing Pakistan’s political class as one that is inept, inefficient and ultimately incapable of protecting the nation’s interests. Somewhat correct as that analysis may be, Gen Kayani has already used it to set the narrative of a weak Government that might eventually have to be replaced by a stronger Army. Also, Gen Kayani’s term expires later this year and it is the transition of power that’ll happen then, that India should watch closely.
Coming back to Mr Sharif, his continued dalliances with Islamists should be a cause for concern for India. The Prime Minister-elect is known to be close to the Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba and considers the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to be an electoral ally. The latter has been held responsible for a slew of attacks on minorities and Mr Sharif has scarcely, if ever, raised his voice in condemnation. And that is not all, when the Taliban came to power in Kabul; Mr Sharif’s Government in Islamabad was one of the few that recognised it.
Now, add to this the fact that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan did not attack the PML (N) during this election because it said it had no problems with the party, and a murky picture of the dangerous opportunist politics emerges. Especially now that the PML (N) is in power, make no mistake that the Taliban, who like to view themselves as the king-makers, will seek to extract more than just their pound of flesh from Mr Sharif and his Government.