Nawaz and the Islamist gauntlet

There are many reasons to be sceptical about the Prime Minister’s capacity to deliver on his promises to Pakistanis and India, but his victory offers hope

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:39 pm IST

Published - June 03, 2013 12:11 am IST

130603 - Lead - Kanwal Sibal article on Pak

130603 - Lead - Kanwal Sibal article on Pak

The return to office of an elected Prime Minister a decade-and-a-half after he was deposed by the military is an important development for India as well as the international community, which have stakes in the progress of democracy in Pakistan.

The elections, which Nawaz Sharif won, have taken place at a time when Pakistan, a major Islamic country with nuclear weapons, is seen as sliding towards state failure. Extremist forces are gaining strength in the country, staging terrorist attacks with impunity. Pakistani soil is being used for terrorist activity against its immediate neighbours, with suspected complicity of state agencies. The Islamist resurgence in Pakistan threatens not only the secular political structures of Central Asian states but is causing concern even to Pakistan’s all-weather friend China, which is worried about links between extremist activity in Sinkiang and Pakistani safe havens.

Moreover, given the geo-political factors operating in the region, internal political developments in Pakistan bear directly on the future of Afghanistan, particularly after NATO forces withdraw from the country in 2014. A stronger democratic polity can better control the Pakistani extremist religious forces and security agencies seeking political and religious “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.

Consolidation of democracy

In this wide-ranging context, the consolidation of democracy in Pakistan offers hope of arresting its decline towards extremism and state failure, controlling the menace of terrorism, strengthening pluralism, changing the equation between the armed forces and the civilian authority and stabilising the polity, with positive consequences for the region as a whole.

The prospects, however, are quite uncertain.

Simply put, the structural and societal problems in the country need more than the mechanics of elections for a solution. The basic complexion of the country would have to change; new, genuinely modernising forces with a wide popular base have to take control, armed with a national agenda of introducing the needed reforms, backed by strong institutional support.

The public mood of disenchantment with the mainstream parties had given an early head wind to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI). The desire for change in Pakistan seemed strong among the youth, spurred in part by the so-called Arab Spring. But Imran Khan lost momentum towards the end.

Political assessments about the depth of this desire for change in Pakistan have eventually proved wrong. Like in the Arab world, social media-urban youth driven calls for political change capture attention more easily than capturing power.

The positives in these elections were the high turnout despite threats of violence, and, given the difficult conditions, their relative “fairness.” The many perturbing negatives were the Islamic criteria which Pakistan’s Election Commission used for vetting candidacies and the violence unleashed by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) against “secular” parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP), obstructing even normal electioneering by a national party like the PPP.

The implication of this is more members of an Islamist hue in the new National Assembly, even if they do not overtly belong to religious parties. The argument that religious parties have a limited hold over the Pakistani electorate as shown by their poor electoral performance becomes increasingly more academic given the lurch of society as a whole towards Islamism.

The fact that India was not a factor in these elections and that improvement of relations with India figured in the election manifestos of various parties with the Pakistan Muslim League (N) the most forward-looking in this regard, is no guarantee that faced with the prospect of serious steps to bury the hatchet with India, religious forces will not become a major obstacle.

The disquieting aspect about the PML (N) is its long-standing links with radical India and Shia-baiting groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Sipah-e-Sihaba. The TTP did not, tellingly, target electioneering by Nawaz Sharif’s party and that of Imran Khan.

These linkages will limit how far Mr. Nawaz would be able to go with India, notwithstanding his declared desire to improve all-round ties. He promises to put curbs on Hafiz Saeed, even though political personalities in his own party are closely linked to him. The Punjab government, under the leadership of his brother, has been soft on him all these years, as has the local judiciary.

Mr. Sharif is hardly in a position to deliver on his promise to end terrorism against India when Pakistan is finding it difficult to control widespread domestic terrorism, of which the armed forces are a target too. Similarly, it is not clear how he will expedite the trial of those involved in the Mumbai terrorist attack. The promised exposure of the realities behind Pakistan’s Kargil aggression may help Mr. Sharif settle scores with Pervez Musharraf, but already Pakistani military sources have spilled the beans about the general’s lies and obfuscations about the failed adventure he initiated.

Practising politician

The PML(N) leader may well be sincere in wanting to normalise ties with India, but he is Pakistan’s leader, a practising politician, and it would be normal for him to bargain his goodwill. He could well leverage it to seek upfront concessions so that his hands get strengthened and the prospects of delivery on his part become more promising.

He should be able to finalise the decision to accord the Most Favoured Nation trading status to India. He will encourage increased economic ties, consistent with his policy when he was last Prime Minister. But the issue of non-tariff barriers, fears of the Pakistani market being inundated by Indian goods and concerns about the large trade imbalance that already exists and is likely to expand, will be dissuasive factors.

His grand vision of according India transit rights through Pakistan to Afghanistan is unlikely to materialise as this would be seen by many in Pakistan as a crucial strategic step with implications for India-Afghanistan relations and Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Opening Central Asia to India’s political and economic influence would mean a huge reversal of Pakistan’s strategic thinking, even if such a step will bring Pakistan additional revenue, bolster its economy and bring benefits to the entire region in terms of trade and energy connectivity.

Nawaz Sharif has already announced a dialogue with India on Kashmir. He wants to signal domestically that the issue will not recede in importance amidst the general rhetoric of improved relations with India, besides, of course, exploring once again the possibility of resuming a serious dialogue on the subject.

India can pick up the threads of the back-channel dialogue conducted with some positive results during General Musharraf’s presidency. But can Mr. Sharif take ownership of the General’s initiative? Even the well-meaning Asif Zardari disowned it. Besides that, the UPA government may not want to get embroiled in any controversy over the Kashmir issue close to elections in 2014.

India is hardly likely to budge on the Siachen issue, particularly after the recent Chinese incursion into Ladakh, whereas Pakistan considers it a low-hanging fruit.

Our Prime Minister’s message to Mr. Sharif on his victory has been unusually warm. His invitation to the latter to visit India when he has kept his own visit there on hold was a little surprising. Mr. Sharif’s return invitation to Manmohan Singh to witness his oath taking ceremony received a politely discouraging response from the Indian side. A visit when the new Pakistani Prime Minister would not have found his feet yet would have been a waste diplomatically. It is also pertinent to note that Dr. Singh did not attend the oath taking ceremony of Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh.

Relations with the military

All said and done, Mr. Sharif’s mutually suspicious relations with the military will limit his capacity to do what he wants in the security and foreign policy domains. The military will not give up its ultimate control over these domains. The election results have not given Mr. Sharif the kind of overwhelming mandate as would enable him to radically change the equation between his civilian government and the armed forces.

The economic challenge facing Mr. Sharif is enormous. The country’s economic situation, with an abysmal tax to GDP ratio, poor growth rate, high inflation, energy shortages, high population growth and the like, cannot be easily remedied. Mr. Sharif will be put on test immediately. Even his opening towards India to ease the situation will take considerable time to get translated into meaningful results on the ground.

The just-concluded visit of the new Chinese Premier hasn’t promised any economic bonanza to “Iron Pakistan” that Mr. Sharif could capitalise on.

Pakistan will have to go the International Monetary Fund for economic relief and accept its onerous conditionalities, which is not a recipe for public popularity. He will have to mend relations with the U.S., but the degree of flexibility he will have on cooperating in Afghanistan and handling the vexed drones issue — all in the background of the increasing radicalisation of Pakistan and anti-U.S. feelings in the country — is questionable.

There are many reasons to be sceptical about Mr. Sharif’s capacity to deliver on his promises to the Pakistani public and to India. The future of liberal democracy in Pakistan is not assured as yet, though the recent election is a cause for hope. As hope is a sentiment that requires no reasons to justify it, one can be generous with one’s hopes about the success of Mr. Sharif’s third tenure as Prime Minister.

(Kanwal Sibal is a former Foreign Secretary)

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