Nawaz Sharif pressed all the right buttons when he spoke about India while campaigning and especially when he had a microphone in front of him. Stress test his words, however, and they convey a pleasant sentiment — “India has never been a threat to Pakistan” — but get downright murky on the details — “[on 26/11] we will look up those files which are there”.
That’s understandable, we are told, because Sharif was getting elected when he said all that, now he is busy forming a government, then he will have to wait for India’s general elections and, in any case, he is going to have to keep a half-eye on the military. Add this all up and we should see Mian Sharif’s true colours on India and a willingness to gamble some political capital on changing the relationship just as the next Pakistani general election campaign begins.
No one denies that Sharif, like all of Pakistan’s civilian leaders, would like to limit the military’s political power. And like all of Pakistan’s civilian leaders he understands that a normal relationship with India would be among the best ways to downsize the generals. Mian Sharif has also come in with a solid electoral mandate — the kind an Indian politico would salivate to have. But let us reel it back to 1998, the last time Sharif went to the polls. The Pakistan Muslim League leader won a staggering 137 national assembly seats and nearly 46% of the popular vote. Like now, his party also dominated the Punjab assembly. Sharif was able to dismiss the then army chief of staff and pick his own khaki counterpart. A lot of good it did him. That same general, Pervez Musharraf, went on to overthrow him, put him in manacles and send him into Saudi exile.
Finally, we should remember Musharraf has insisted that Sharif had been told of the Kargil intrusion beforehand, that even as the prime minister was greeting Atal Bihari Vajpayee at Wagah, the army chief was sending his cohorts across the Line of Control. One shouldn’t be surprised: a Pakistani leader who believes in peace with India does not do so for love of India, he does so because he believes the cost of neighbourhood hostility is too high for his country to afford. Sharif could easily have seen Kargil as leverage against New Delhi when the peace process would have run aground of territorial shoals.
Yes, the context for 2013 and the backdrop of 1998 are certainly different. The military has lost control of many civilian institutions including the presidency and the judiciary. This means General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani can’t stage a constitutional coup. But he may have simply decided that so long as he can stage a normal bullet-headed one, what does it matter? In Pakistan, power still flows from the barrel of a gun.
A more sensible read of Sharif is one of a man who has learnt his lessons from two run-ins with the military. His campaign speeches in favour of greater trade with India, negotiating with the Taliban and guardedly criticising the US drone attacks have nothing in them that would remotely trouble Rawalpindi. He did talk about the need for military subservience to civilian authorities — but never detailed how theory would become praxis. There is a case for saying that India is the one place where Sharif’s statements could run him afoul of the generals. It is a policy that Rawalpindi believes it must control by divine right. It is one which undermines the basis for the military’s special place in Pakistani society. Which is exactly why no one should hold their breath when it comes to Sharif and talk of a Lahore peace process 2.0. The military is no pushover, whatever the election results. As Musharraf once said, “If you want to keep the army out, you bring them in.” Be assured they will be consulted on all things India-centric. Kayani has been in his present seat for five years which means most of the senior army commanders there are close to him. Even when he retires, his shadow will remain.
The army also has Imran Khan. For those in India’s chattering classes who believe Khan is anything but a creation of the Pakistani military, please go to the video showing one of his candidates proudly admitting he had been selected by the Inter-Services Intelligence. The real captain of the Tehreek-e-Insaaf is Kayani and the former swing bowler bowls a line and length that the generals decide. Which is why, if Sharif steps out of line, expect the province of Kyber-Pakhtoonwa to take to the streets with Khan leading the stone-pelters.
Sharif will also wonder who and what he will have to work with in New Delhi given Manmohan Singh’s portrayal of a lame duck prime minister. There is every possibility that most-favoured nation status will be granted: Islamabad had signalled to New Delhi that the thread would be picked up again after the elections. After that, expect many words, in English and Punjabi, in couplets and proverbs, that will talk about peace and that sort of thing. Don’t, however, expect too much else for many moons to come. The stars, as they say, are nowhere close to alignment.