As Narendra Modi became the first leader to send Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a bouquet of flowers and wishes for a quick recovery after his heart bypass surgery, some in Pakistan wondered about the payoff of the direct contact between the two leaders. This is not to suggest that friendly gestures from political leaders should discontinue but it is worth exploring how much of this would help improve the otherwise estranged and tense bilateral relations.
Starting with Mr. Modi’s Lahore visit in December 2015 to Mr. Sharif’s recent phone call to his Indian counterpart from London in response to his best wishes tweet, from a distance it looks like a steady friendship. Indeed, Mr. Sharif does not need convincing to reach out, as he is one of the most ardent supporters of peace with India and within the larger South Asian region. In a recent private conversation with a Pakistani journalist, he reiterated the economic dividends that would accrue from improvement in relations, which his political opponents chose to interpret as concern for his personal financial and business stakes. Notwithstanding the actual reason, Mr. Sharif is the only political leader willing to take the risk of pushing the peace agenda where other leaders have become more cautious.
PPP’s rhetoric This is despite the fact that Mr. Sharif was not the first to take the initiative on the peace process. When she was Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto had welcomed her counterpart, Rajiv Gandhi, to Islamabad in 1988, thus moving away even from her father’s slogan of a “thousand years of war” with India. Later, her husband, the then President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, and the then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, both also of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), tried to grant India Most Favoured Nation status in 2011. Although the efforts got blocked due to a combination of genuine and not-so-genuine reasons, the credit for the initiative goes to the PPP on Pakistan’s side.
So, who could imagine that the same PPP would use a slogan like “Modi ka ju yaar hey, ghaddar hey (whoever is Modi’s friend — in reference to Nawaz Sharif — is a traitor)” to target Mr. Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League, or PML-N. During his recent election rallies, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari promised people in Kashmir that he’d take up the issue as per United Nations resolutions at all high forums — and that the PML-N’s defeat must be ensured, which would be tantamount to Mr. Modi’s loss. Surrounded by a gang of four senior PPP leaders in Punjab, who have links with the military, the young Mr. Bhutto Zardari is trying his best to endear himself to the Army GHQ. Through this, the PPP leadership hopes to protect its predatory control of Sindh and gain electoral benefits in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, in which it got wiped out in the 2013 elections.
At the Pakistan end, the India-Pakistan peace fairy tale begins and ends with the politically powerful armed forces. Since the early years after the country’s birth in 1947, the Army has continued to be the lead protagonist in both domestic politics and foreign policy. This is not a reality that Mr. Sharif is oblivious of, which gives rise to the question, does he really imagine he could mend fences with New Delhi on his own? The issue here is not with Mr. Sharif’s sincerity of purpose, but the tactics adopted to attain the end.
Style of governance A large part of the problem lies with Mr. Sharif’s style of governance. He resists institutionalising decisions and processes, and that results in strategic failures. He had faced the problem in his dealings with the Army in 1999, and he is confronting a similar crisis again. It would have made more sense, for instance, had he taken Mr. Modi to the Governor’s House in Lahore instead of his personal estate at Raiwind, where the military and Foreign Office (which, of course, is heavily influenced by the GHQ) were not welcome. Apparently he committed a similar faux pas in dealing with Saudi Arabia’s request for committing troops for Riyadh’s war in Yemen. This personalised style of dealing with foreign leaders, that mainly involves his family members or close aides, tends to make the Army very nervous. Given the suspicion, the goodwill emanating from the Lahore visit soon evaporated. Now, Mr. Sharif is caught in the ‘Panama leaks’ controversy, with the military’s old and new political partners, who are equally corrupt, spinning a web of political and ethical reasoning to displace him from office. Even if he is not removed, the crisis will weaken him until the next elections in 2018.
Put simply, he is not likely to regain the strength to deliver anything substantial in the India-Pakistan peace process. Meanwhile, the bilateral situation has gone back to the status quo. The establishment in Islamabad, as was voiced by the Prime Minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, is not in a hurry to kick-start the peace initiative. Islamabad’s Joint Investigation Team (JIT) looking into the Pathankot terror attack was not convinced of anyone’s involvement from Pakistan and has sent back a set of questions for New Delhi to answer. Moreover, the argument is that if India wants to move forward on peace, it should elevate discussions beyond terrorism and come to fundamental issues — or even if it is terrorism, then the conversation must begin with the Samjhauta Express attack.
The importance of GHQ The Kashmir dispute is one of the issues, but it may not be the only one. The important fact is that a debate with the Pakistan military has never been held seriously, both internally or externally, regarding its end vision vis-à-vis India. The inherent flaw with Mr. Sharif’s game plan, as pointed out earlier, is that it aims for peace without bringing the biggest domestic actor into the conversation. In doing so, the government ignores, much to its own disadvantage, the Army’s capacity to stall any initiative. No civilian government has demonstrated an ability to stop the Army once it begins to checkmate a peace initiative.
According to one perspective, which is the more popular in India, Pakistan’s Army hampers any move forward towards peace because its very existence depends upon conflict. But at some point the organisation will have to respond to pressures from its external partners such as the U.S. and China. Beijing has often encouraged Islamabad to abandon its isolationist policy. The regional environment is changing, and that will have implications for the military, its status and role in the region. It also should not be forgotten that the organisation is not a monolith and from time to time it does evaluate, though timidly, ties with India. More than a year ago it deputed a well-known Pakistani university, which was studying trade with India, to examine the impact on the military business complex.
This reminds one of the signalling by the former Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Lt. General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, in 2009 suggesting that New Delhi engage the military in conversation. He dropped by at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad and later invited the three military attachés for iftar. Sources believe that some conversation did begin via a third country, but nothing more is known about it. Apparently, even the then PPP government was in the dark. In order to establish peace, two parallel conversations would have to begin: one between Pakistan’s military and its political leadership, and the other between New Delhi and the military.
Ultimately, peace is a long-drawn process which will not deliver fruit in a hurry. Even if peace is a dead-end street, the possibility is still worth exploring by talking with actors who have power to tilt the balance.
Ayesha Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist.