Pakistan’s new government will look at Army for deciding India ties
Will a new government is Pakistan, only the second democratic handing over of power in the country’s 70-year history, bring any change to the frosty relationship between India and its western neighbour?
Officials and experts who track the countries’ ties say a lot hinges on the authority the new government in Pakistan will have in deciding its India policy, which has almost always been dictated by the country’s all-powerful army.
The results of a neck-and-neck general election pitting cricket icon and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan against two entrenched parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), hold immense interest and importance for India.
“Our Pakistan policy has remained consistent, which is terror and talks cannot go together. In fact, India has never shied away from the talks and the talks on terror (between the national security advisors) went on,” said an official who has been tracking India-Pakistan relations.
Experts say Khan, 65, is an untested entity and the backing he has from the Pakistan Army and his support to the Islamist voices have given rise to apprehensions that he would take a harder position on engagement with India than the PML-N, which is headed by Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz.
For its part, the PML-N had made efforts to mend ties with India while in office, but its approach did not succeed because of the role the army plays in shaping the country’s India policy.
Shehbaz, 66, will be the frontrunner within the party if it does well in the elections. From a business background, and considered to be closer to the army than his brother, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, he is likely to tread carefully.
Ties between India and Pakistan had gone from bad to worse on account of cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. Foreign-secretary level talks were suspended after the January 2016 militant attack on the Pathankot airbase. India blamed the attack, in which seven security personnel were killed, on the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant group and sought action from Pakistan to bring the perpetrators to justice. What had also riled India was that the attack took place a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise stopover in Lahore to greet Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif on his birthday on December 25.
“Nothing happens unless it has happened in India-Pakistan relationship. Sometimes things go against the script,” said another person who tracks the ties between the countries.
Bilawal Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party could be a swing force if there is a hung assembly after the Pakistan election results. The PPP, within the Pakistan polity, is seen as advocating closer ties to India. Its record, however, is mixed. While Asif Ali Zardari, as president, had sought to deepen ties, there were also tough periods when the PPP was in power, especially during the early years of Benazir Bhutto’s prime ministership in the 1990s.
“First we need to know who would form the government and the kind of authority they will have in running the government before we get down to think about the way Islamabad would conduct its ties with India,” said TCA Raghavan, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan. Analysts also believe that the key foreign policy issues, especially the relationship would continue as the preserve of the all-powerful Pakistan army.
Will the Modi government would have the necessary political capital to expend on ties with Pakistan, which has a clear resonance in India’s domestic policy. “If you look back in history, there are occasions even in the last year in office governments on both sides took fresh initiatives in repairing ties as well as resuming ties. So we need to wait and see,” said Raghavan.