Pakistan polls and the certainty of another ‘selected’ PM: What Nawaz return could mean for Indo-Pak ties

The real contest in Pakistan this time is between its Army and an absent Imran Khan.

WrittenBy:Nirupama Subramanian
Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, Asim Munir, and PM Modi.

Barring an unforeseen development, Pakistan's general elections on February 8 are widely expected to bring Nawaz Sharif back to office for a fourth time in a span of 35 years. Such political longevity is rare in Pakistan, especially as the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) could never complete any of his previous three terms, cut short as they were by the “establishment”. But in the never ceasing cat and mouse game between the Pakistan Army and the country's political class, the wheel has now turned full circle for Sharif.

The former prime minister entered politics in the 1980s mentored by the “establishment” in the Zia era, fell out with it from about the mid-1990s until about 2020, and is now poised to make a comeback with the blessings of the same establishment in the era of an army chief who seems determined to be more controlling than Zia.

The apparent contest in Pakistan this time is between Sharif and the Pakistan People's Party, but in reality it is between the Pakistan Army and an absent Imran Khan. Despite his disqualification from the election due to convictions in four cases, the jailed leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and former cricketer continues to haunt this election. How much his wild popularity has been hit by the events since last May – when his arrest on a slew of charges unleashed an anti-army revolt on the streets by his followers, with the sentiment seeming to infect soldiers too – is not clear, but the Army does not want to know. His long jail sentences in multiple cases, and other measures to clamp down on the party, are a clear message to voters to choose wisely.

The PTI is pushing back against the Pakistan Army’s efforts to deny it a level playing field. At least twice, Khan has addressed followers through recorded speeches using an AI clone of his voice, transmitted through social media. With the Supreme Court stripping the party of its election symbol, the cricket bat, PTI candidates are contesting as independents under various symbols allotted to them. The party’s efforts are geared towards ensuring its voters come out on polling day.

But few believe the PTI will succeed. Sharif has remained popular, especially in Punjab, Pakistan's biggest and politically most powerful province, even through his self-exile in London. He is expected to romp home on the combined strength of this, and on being the Pakistan Army’s “selected” prime minister this time. 

The politician who once took on the Army in his public speeches, blaming them openly for ruining the country, is now more circumspect. He was allowed to return from London where he was living in self-exile, and in January, the Supreme Court ruled to reverse its 2017 order that disqualified him from standing for office for life.

Sharif and India

In India, Sharif is seen as the best bet for normalisation of relations with Pakistan. 

He has been an outspoken voice for making up with India since 1999. As a second time prime minister, he had received then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with much fanfare as he arrived in Lahore through the first bus service between the two countries, months after the nuclear tests by both countries. And in Sharif’s third term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stopped over in Lahore en route from Afghanistan at the end of 2015 to meet the Pakistani leader at his family home. 

Both times, Sharif’s  abrupt removal from office led to the conclusion that his open advocacy of friendship with India was among the reasons that the establishment had decided to get rid of him – the first time through a military coup, the second by what was called a “coup by the judiciary”.

In anticipation of some thaw in the ties, the India-Pakistan track two channel has already picked up. That Sharif and the Army are on the same side has reinforced the impression that a bilateral mechanism can be warmed up soon, and that the end of the year may even see one of the two leaders travel to the other country. 

The record

But there is always an element of the unanticipated or unexpected in India-Pakistan ties. For instance, the Lahore Declaration of 1999 – the outcome of Vajpayee’s visit – in which both sides for the first time set up a dialogue to resolve all outstanding issues, was effectively scotched by the Kargil war launched by Sharif’s then Army chief, the ambitious Pervez Musharraf.

Prime Minister Modi’s stopover in Lahore was followed by the Pathankot terror attack. By the time of the Uri attack by Jaish terrorists, and the retaliatory surgical strikes inside the LoC, India-Pakistan relations had plunged to new depths. 

In October 2016, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper published an account of a meeting between the top Army brass and the PML(N) leadership. The report said that at this meeting, around the time that Army chief Raheel Sharif was looking for an extension, the Sharif brothers (Nawaz and Shehbaz) conveyed in plain language to the uniforms that the reason Pakistan was in the international doghouse was due to the military’s embrace of using terrorist groups as an instrument of state policy, and that the only path forward was for the generals to clean up their act.

What’s different now

In the eight years since this seminal moment, the Army has itself changed. Gen Sharif handed over the reins to Qamar Javed Bajwa, who pushed ahead with “Project Imran”, building him up and helping him win the 2018 election. Bajwa’s realisation that he had made a mistake came early. Khan angered the Saudis by making nice with Turkey and put off the Chinese by dissing CPEC. Governance floundered as he insisted he needed to jail all his political rivals first as they were corrupt, and expected the Army to help him do this. Bajwa’s fears were reinforced after his own humiliating wait for an extension, and then over Imran’s proximity to the ISI chief. As Bajwa and Khan fell apart, the Army chief donned the role of changemaker.

With India, a backchannel process that had begun in 2017-18 between the National Security Advisers became more active, this time with Army top brass as interlocutors.This, despite the hostile falling out in 2019, first over Pulwama-Balakot, and then on the government revocation of Article 370. 

In November 2019, in a clear indication that the two governments were talking, the Kartarpur corridor was opened for pilgrims to visit Guru Nanak’s final resting place at Kartarpur Sahib in Punjab’s Narowal, opposite Gurdaspur in India. The second tangible outcome of this was an official and public agreement by the Indian and Pakistan armies in 2021 to silence the guns at the Line of Control, and observe the unwritten 2003 ceasefire diligently, significantly at a time when India was eyeballing the Chinese in eastern Ladakh.

Bajwa’s next efforts, which he described as “replacing geostrategy with geoeconomics” led to considerable anticipation for the revival of trade between the two countries, with the main ask from Pakistan appearing to be fairly simple – the restoration of statehood in J&K. But the plan unravelled as some of Khan’s cabinet declared that there could be no business with India until Article 370 was restored in Kashmir. The plan to reopen the Wagah border to trade was called off. The well-known Pakistan TV anchor Hamid Mir revealed last year that had the process continued, Prime Minister Modi was even supposed to travel to Pakistan in April 2021, to visit the Hinglaj temple in Balochistan.

The coming together of Pakistan’s opposition parties to remove Khan through a no-confidence vote in Parliament in 2022, and the installation of Shehbaz Sharif as Prime Minister of a coalition government until the elections, which were due in 2023, led to renewed anticipation that the new government would reach out to India. But as Khan rallied supporters against his parliamentary ouster as a conspiracy directed by the US, and his popularity suddenly skyrocketed, it became impossible for the government to find its feet. 

Resolving Pakistan’s economic crisis was the government’s first priority. As a part of this, Shehbaz Sharif made weak attempts at outreach to India. But he had no political capital to take these forward. Plus, there was the added uncertainty about where the new Army chief, General Syed Asim Munir, stood on this matter.

New anticipation

In the expectation that Nawaz Sharif will soon be back in the saddle, this time with the Army behind him, there is once again a buzz about India-Pakistan relations. An uptick in track two meetings, at which retired diplomats, military and security officials, academics and journalists from both sides jaw-jaw in third countries, is a sign that the ground is being prepared. But the new anticipation is also tempered by Pakistan’s new political realities, and geopolitical trends.

Any forward movement will have to wait for the Indian elections, in which the Modi-ld BJP hopes to return for a third term. Assuming a PML(N) victory and Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister, some observers believe that in its present economic state, Pakistan has no choice but to mend fences with India, but it all depends on Sharif's political capital after this tainted election, and the red lines the Army draws for him. The actions of both Sharif and Munir, and more crucially, their relationship with each other, will depend on how strong Sharif emerges from this election. The Sharifs batted strongly for Munir’s elevation as chief, but the past shows that this is no guarantee that they will not fall out. Sharif may also want to play safe to ensure that he does not set a record for a prime minister with four truncated terms.

For its part, Delhi will be watching what changes the Pakistan Army effects in the relationship with Afghanistan with or without Nawaz Sharif. India will also be mindful of the moves by Nawaz Sharif, a strong votary of and the signatory on the CPEC agreement in 2013, with China. 

If an India-Pakistan thaw does take place, Nawaz Sharif may publicly demand to see at least a restoration of statehood in Kashmir. An assurance that India may want in return is that Pakistan will not disrupt elections for the J&K legislative assembly elections, whenever they are held, holding its line on cross border terrorism, with the areas south of the Pir Panjal an area of renewed concern.

For the long term, India might want to return to the “Bajwa formula” – putting Kashmir on the backburner indefinitely in return for normalcy. Both sides may also make a bid to revive cross border trade, and do-able Musharraf era-confidence building measures in Kashmir, such as cross LoC travel. One assurance that Delhi may seek even before the election is the safety of Kulbhushan Jadhav.

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