Originally Published 2013-05-21 00:00:00 Published on May 21, 2013
The democratic transition in Pakistan has coincided with the last year of the UPA government's second term in India. As the government battles one controversy after another, the looming elections in 2014 may act as a distraction wherein improving relations with Pakistan may not be a priority for the government at present.
Real touchstone is action on 26/11 accused
Nawaz Sharif's thumping win in the Pakistan elections has given hope that the change in leadership in Islamabad could mark a new phase in the country's foreign policy. Sharif seems to be saying all the right things for generating this belief. He has declared a re-evaluation of Pakistan's foreign policy and the development of warmer relations with India picking up from where circumstances forced him to let off in 1999. He has promised to rein in the militants operating out of Pakistan and preventing the repeats of Kargil and 26/11. He has also given assurances that he would establish the supremacy of his civilian government over the military establishment.

This last named hope, in particular, is directed towards India-Pakistan economic relations. Sharif is said to represent the business and trading classes in Pakistan, or at least in Punjab, and he himself has business interests of his own. It was to protect these business interests against the nationalisation drive of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s that Sharif entered politics. It is thus felt that given his background the normalisation of commercial relations with India could be a priority for Sharif's government. Some former Indian diplomats have also gone on record to suggest that 'Most Favoured Nation' status for India is a matter of time now.

More than Sharif's business orientation, it is Pakistan's crippling economy and energy crisis -marked by heavy load shedding extending up to 12-20 hours, even in some of the major urban centres -and the current state of US-Pakistan relations that necessitates the need to look for alternative economic partners. Pakistan's economic plight had not only done much to stoke the anti-incumbency in Pakistan, but has also been viewed by many as posing a possible existential threat to the Pakistani state. It is no surprise then that Sharif would want to tackle this right away.

Improvement in economic relations, however, may not be enough to put bilateral ties on the right track. The manner in which Indo-Pak relations unfolded during the tenure of the previous government bears testimony to this fact. The removal of certain trade barriers and the liberalisation of the visa regime had been hailed as positive steps. But such progressive steps are seen only as a secondary aspect in India-Pakistan relations and are always the first casualties of any deterioration in relations. Issues such as terrorism and Kashmir continue to hold more significance and tensions in this field are capable of undermining all progress made in any other field and completely hijacking the process. This was evident following the skirmishes along the Line of Control when the Visa-on-arrival scheme for senior citizens was suspended and Pakistanis were prohibited from participating in a number of cultural and sporting events in India.

This indicates the larger problem that Sharif's pro-business outlook may not be able to tackle. For India, as important and appreciable as these measures may be, real progress in bilateral relations will come about only when steps are taken to dismantle the terror infrastructure in Pakistan and action is taken against the perpetrators of the Mumbai 26/11 incident. Although, Sharif has made promises to resolve such issues, he may not have the power to do so.

Traditionally it has been the Pakistan military, which has controlled the country's foreign policy. Relations with Afghanistan, China, the US and India in particular lie in its domain and it has resented attempts of the civilian government to assert its supremacy over the military establishment. In fact, Nawaz Sharif's previous tenure was cut short in 1999 by a military coup due to his efforts to put a check on the military's power. Thus, despite some prominent Pakistani analysts claiming that the Army would not be a hindrance to Sharif in this round, the memory of the coup and the subsequent jail term and exile to Saudi Arabia could lead Sharif to adopt a more cautious approach when it comes to managing the civil-military relations.

There has been nothing to suggest that the military establishment in Pakistan is willing to change its approach to India. It has taken no action against Hafez Saeed, the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba chief, nor has it cut back its support for insurgents targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan. There is in fact a fear in India that come 2014 and the US drawdown from Afghanistan, Rawalpindi will take advantage of the prevailing uncertainty in Afghanistan to not only attack the Indian presence in Afghanistan, but also reactivate the cross-border terrorism into India.

In the absence of a strategic shift on the part of the Pakistan military, a change in the civilian leadership is, thus, unlikely to make the desired difference to the bilateral relations. As the former Pakistan Ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, said in an interview following the elections, relations with India would be a kind of a "hug-hug, embrace-embrace" with changes and progress taking place only at a superficial level without there being a substantial strategic change towards India.

Even if the assumption that there has been a shift in the Pakistan army's approach to India in recent times, as has been claimed by some, is to be taken into account, it does not change the fact that the Army calls the shots in Pakistan. In that case, the peace process would be pushed forward irrespective of who leads the civilian government.

Finally, a roadblock to improving the relations could come from India itself. The democratic transition in Pakistan has coincided with the last year of the UPA government's second term. As the government battles one controversy after another, the looming elections in 2014 may act as a distraction wherein improving relations with Pakistan may not be a priority for the government at present.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy : The Pioneer, May 18, 2013

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