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Nawaz Sharif is back, but what does it mean for India?

By Ajai Shukla
May 14, 2013 12:05 IST
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Behind Nawaz Sharif’s ‘peace with India’ stance remain unanswered questions about his role in the Kargil conflict and his family’s links with the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Muhammad, says Ajai Shukla

Pakistan’s army would have noted how distressingly unpredictable politics can be. In early 2000, having just been booted out as prime minister by his army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif contemplated life in prison, a lenient sentence from complaisant judges who had earlier hanged Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

But then Saudi Arabia gave Sharif asylum, General Musharraf’s hubris brought down his regime, and Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and her husband’s ineptitude reopened the doors of opportunity.

Nawaz Sharif must be chortling at the thought that among those watching his resurrection is General Musharraf, under house arrest in Islamabad. The wheel has turned full circle.

Pakistan sceptics -- a group that should logically include everyone familiar with that country’s modern political history -- will say that the wheel will inevitably turn again. Given Sharif’s animosity with the military; his stated aim to improve relations with India; and the likelihood that the new prime minister will prove unable to resolve Pakistan’s deep-rooted economic, social, ethnic and security problems, there is every likelihood that the new prime minister and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N, will soon be publicly reviled, allowing Pakistan’s khaki-clad saviours to intervene again.

But the last five years have eroded this logic. First, a new political consensus to block the army from politics is evident from the fact that the immeasurably incompetent Pakistan Peoples Party government completed its full five-year term. On several occasions when President Zardari defied the generals, Sharif prevented them from driving a wedge between the two main parties.

Second, the generals today need political cover from a popular elected government for their intensifying confrontation with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the “bad Taliban” that the military is fighting in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Third, as was evident from the rambunctious “jalsas” or jamborees across Pakistan last month, the aam Pakistani (and especially the aam Punjabi) has taken to the tamasha of electoral politics in a manner that does not brook denial.

Finally, since October 12, 1999, when General Musharraf overthrew Sharif, the judiciary and media have become powerful pro-democracy players that pack real power on the Pakistani street.

There is, however, a new cloud over that sunny scenario for democracy. The emergence of Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf transforms a two-major-party political landscape into a three-major-party one. Given that the PTI is supported by young Pakistan, Khan will only grow in strength in the years to come. So far his conservative, anti-American stance aligns with the military’s outlook and he has never said anything to disturb the generals.

The appointment of Pakistan’s most visceral anti-India and pro-military hawk, Shireen Mazari, as PTI spokesperson is worrying for those who wonder which is the real Imran Khan: the polished, western-oriented liberal; or the jihadi-hugging, America-bashing, military proxy?

Either way, Imran Khan presents Nawaz Sharif with his first dilemma. The PTI has emerged as the largest party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Khan has declared that he will not join forces with the PML-N. This is hardly surprising given the two parties’ similar, conservative outlooks and agendas; Khan would calculate that, in alliance, the larger PML-N would swallow the PTI, buying its members with money or position.

Either Sharif must allow the strategic Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to be governed by the PTI, which would constrain Islamabad’s freedom to target the jihadi networks entrenched there; or he would have to cobble together a weak coalition under the PML-N to rule in Peshawar. That would allow him to claim political influence beyond his Punjabi heartland, but the coalition would face crippling opposition from the powerful PTI.

Sharif would do well in conceding Peshawar to Imran Khan. Over the coming months, Pakistan’s new political masters will learn, like the army before them, that compromise and negotiations with the pan-Islamist jihadis in the Tribal Areas are destined to fail. It is important that the PTI be a part of this learning process, given that its election manifesto blamed every problem in the Tribal Areas on the “American war on terror”.

In opposition, Khan would need only to find fault with the way the government was pursuing talks. As the chief minister in Peshawar (were he not to shirk that challenge), he would confront the truth that jihadi terrorism in the Tribal Areas feeds on a range of factors that include the US presence in Afghanistan, but also issues that are deeply embedded within the fabric of modern-day Pakistan and the ideologies and practices of its establishment.

More than any Pakistani leader before him, Nawaz Sharif comes to power with a positive mandate on India. This reflects a growing belief within Pakistan in better relations with India, a sentiment that easily survived vocal Indian hostility last December at the mutilation of two Indian soldiers on the Line of Control. New Delhi must cautiously welcome Sharif’s overtures, not only because an unequivocal Indian embrace would be a kiss of death in Pakistan.

Behind Sharif’s “peace with India” stance remain unanswered questions about his role in the Kargil conflict and his family’s links with the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Muhammad. While this must be kept in mind, it must also be remembered that -- like in the case of General Musharraf -- a hand of friendship extended from Pakistan is valuable only if the other hand holds and brings along with it the hard-line elements that have prevented peace so far.

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Ajai Shukla
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