Author : Sushant Sareen

Originally Published 2018-06-11 08:48:10 Published on Jun 11, 2018
Any association with New Delhi is still seen as a kiss of death in Pakistani politics.
Why India is a big factor in Pakistani polls

For over two decades now, the Pakistanis and their advocates in India have successfully peddled the half-truth that India isn’t an issue in Pakistani elections. The first time this lemon was sold was after the 1997 elections in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif swept those polls hardly ever mentioning India during the entire campaign.

Since then, Pakistani spin doctors and apologists have constantly harped the line that while Pakistan is inevitably dragged in as an issue in Indian elections, India barely figures as a vote getting issue in Pakistani elections.

But this proposition is at best erroneous and at worst mendacious. The reality is that India looms large on the political scene in Pakistan, even if it doesn’t figure as a central point during election campaigns; conversely, even though Pakistan is becoming a political issue in Indian elections, it is at best one of the many issues raised during the campaign and has never been the central issue around which campaigning is done.

Spin doctors

There is often a tendency to dumb down election results and analyse them not objectively but according to the predilection or prejudice of the analyst. The political setting and backdrop in which an election happens often decides the issues that will rule the political campaigns of the various players.

In Pakistan, the 1988 polls were for the restoration of democracy after the dark dictatorship of Gen Zia-ul-Haq. The 1990 elections were about Benazir Bhutto’s feckless governance and the civil-military tensions which led to facilitating a right-wing coalition led by Nawaz Sharif to win the polls. India was very much a factor in these elections because Benazir was accused of selling out the Khalistani terrorists to India.

By 1993, Nawaz Sharif had fallen out of favour and Benazir ingratiated herself to the "deep state" and won the elections, with a little help from the men in khaki. Her second tenure was one in which she took a strident stand on Kashmir and refused all dialogue with India.

That, of course, didn’t save her when the establishment decided that they had enough of the Bonnie and Clyde model of governance of Benazir and Asif Zardari. The 1997 elections were fought almost entirely centred on this one issue; everything else, including India, was irrelevant at the hustings.

After winning, Nawaz, of course, played along with the spin that India was no longer an issue in Pakistani politics. The 2002 polls were more about Afghanistan than about India, and in any case were engineered to serve the political interests of the then dictator, General Pervez Musharraf; 2008 was about restoration of democracy and Benazir’s assassination; 2013 was almost entirely about bad governance by the PPP and the crippling energy crisis; and 2018 will be mostly about Nawaz Sharif’s ouster.

Here is the thing: there are broadly only two scenarios in which there is no purchase in agitating an issue at the hustings — one, if the issue is redundant and has no traction among the electorate; two, if everyone is saying the same thing and there is little to distinguish the position of one party from that of another. India fits into the latter category.

The fact of the matter is that while India might not have figured prominently in Pakistani elections, no political party in Pakistan ever sought votes on a platform of wanting to improve and normalise relations with India. It is sheer bunkum when Pakistanis say that there is political consensus on improving relations with India. What they invariably sidestep is that this consensus is based on the caveat that disputes (particularly Kashmir) will be resolved according to Pakistan's wishes.

Deep state

Even more important is the fact that before the election campaigning even starts in Pakistan, the India factor has already been used to target one or the other contenders as a traitor, an Indian "influence agent", soft on India, etc.

For instance, even though India is unlikely to feature forthcoming elections, the "deep state" along with its camp-followers in other parties as well as the media mujahideen, have carried out a sustained propaganda against Nawaz Sharif and his India-friendly policies. Bilawal Zardari refers to Nawaz as "Modi ka yaar (friend)", Imran Khan and his cohort have called Nawaz Sharif a "security risk" — a term Nawaz Sharif and his cohort used to use for Benazir Bhutto.

Nawaz Sharif has been called a traitor for an interview in which he questioned the handling of the 26/11 case, he has been pilloried for being friends with an Indian industrialist, for welcoming the Indian PM to his house in Lahore, and for not referring to Kulbhusan Jadhav in international forums to paint India in lurid colours.

In other words, any association with India is still seen as a kiss of death in Pakistani politics. If therefore, India is not mentioned in elections, it doesn’t mean India is not an issue in Pakistani politics.

Pakistan lobby

It may seem strange but is perhaps not surprising, that while the Pakistan lobby in India blithely ignores the anti-India rants that precede an election in Pakistan, they overblow and overplay any reference to Pakistan during Indian elections. No election in India is fought on a single issue, certainly not an issue like Pakistan. To the extent that Pakistan is a foreign policy issue, it is quite natural for any political party to enunciate its policy on that country.

But to extrapolate a reference to Pakistan, even if it is disparaging and dismissive of our neighbour from hell, and project it as though this was the central issue on which an election campaign revolved is to stretch the limits of credulity. Any objective content analysis of election speeches will reveal that Pakistan was only a fraction of even Narendra Modi's political pitch, not just during the 2014 general elections and subsequent state elections.

Therefore, next time someone tries to sell the lemon that India-bashing is no longer in vogue in Pakistani politics but the opposite is true, remember it is a half-truth garnished with a load of rubbish.

This commentary originally appeared in DailyO.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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