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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 24, June 1, 2013

Pakistan Throws Down Gauntlet at the US

Saturday 1 June 2013, by M K Bhadrakumar


The return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to power in Pakistan after a hiatus of 14 years electrifies the regional politics of South Asia. Signals passing back and forth between New Delhi and Lahore underscore a subtle change having already appeared in the political vibes.

Typically, even as the results from the May 11, parliamentary poll were pouring in, Sharif told an Indian television channel on the following day: “I will visit India whether India invites me or not.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recipro-cated within hours by breaking with protocol and congratulating Sharif on his “emphatic” victory in the “historic” elections and inviting him to visit India at a mutually convenient time. Manmohan phoned Sharif and, according to the latter, a “long chat” followed.

The two words—“emphatic” and “historic”—capture the mood in New Delhi. The Indian establishment has been keeping its fingers crossed that a strong government would be taking shape in Pakistan.

The reading in Delhi is that given the extremely complicated situation in Pakistan and the dangerous regional environment, tough decisions are called for in steering the ship of the Pakistani state through the shark-infested sea, which only a strong government in Islamabad could undertake.

From the Indian viewpoint, therefore, the outcome of the May 11 elections has been “historic” insofar as it signifies a triumphant march of democracy. Pakistan’s democratisation profoundly impacts on the dynamics of the normalisation of relations between the two countries.

To be sure, the prospect of Nawaz Sharif being at the helm of affairs in Islamabad comes as great relief to the Indian leadership. Sharif is a known figure to the Indian elites and Delhi knows it can do business with him.

In fact, things were beginning to look up in India-Pakistan relations at that point in 1999 when Sharif was ousted from power in the military coup led by General Pervez Musharraf.

In the Indian estimation, one main reason why the military conspired against the elected government led by Sharif was the apprehension in Rawalpindi that the normalisation process with India that he was actively pursuing might gain traction.

A Dangerous Turf

Ironically, it was the Right-wing Hindu nationalist government led by Atal Behiari Vajpayee that concluded that Nawaz Sharif is quintessentially a pragmatist and engaged him in a dramatic policy overture.

Sharif always trusted that the mutual benefit that trade and investment involving India could bring for Pakistani economy could cement bilateral relations and make the two countries stakeholders in regional security and stability.

Being a son of the soil, Sharif places faith in regional cooperation. Added to that, as a statesman with a power base in the heartland province of Punjab, he is uniquely placed to break the old mindset of animosity toward India prevailing among influential quarters within the Pakistani establishment.

Sharif has enjoyed extensive networking with the religious parties in Pakistan, and he is far better placed than any other national leader today in evolving a consensus of opinion favouring normalisation with India.

Conceivably, from Sharif’s own point of view, too, normalisation of relations with India would be a pre-requisite to advance his core political agenda in the direction of asserting civilian supremacy in Pakistan’s political economy.

However, other factors also come into play in any India-Pakistan normalisation process. First and foremost, it remains to be seen how Sharif’s equations with Washington would work out. The US-Pakistan relationship has historically flavoured the India-Pakistan relationship.

Sharif has reasons to feel disheartened that Washington remained standoffish when he was ousted from power by the military. The speed and ease with which Pervez Musharraf endeared himself to the George W. Bush Administration also would have grated on Sharif’s sensitivities at a critical point in his political fortunes.

When Sharif languished in the political wilderness, Washington thought it expedient to keep him at arm’s length. Washington was wary of his past links with the militant groups in Pakistan. But today it may come as a pleasant surprise to the Obama Administration that Sharif turns out to be a cooperative interlocutor.

The main problem for the US could lie elsewhere. It could turn out to be not so much Sharif as that the May 11 elections have thrown up Imran Khan as the focal point of the political Opposition in Pakistan.

Khan has tasted blood and would realise the seamless potentials of “anti-Americanism” in Pakistani politics, which he knows holds resonance among the youth. Suffice to say, this may also turn out to be Sharif’s headache. Khan can make things difficult for Sharif if the latter initiates policy directions that might even remotely involve working arrangements with the United State’s regional strategy.

Clearly, there is ample scope here for the Pakistani military to fish in troubled waters and attempt to checkmate Sharif. What might strengthen Sharif’s hand is that he will be heading a strong government in Islamabad that is beyond the pale of the military’s influence and that his party enjoys overwhelming mass support in Punjab province.

But, equally, what debilitates Sharif is that his party turns out to be a Punjab-based party and has a relatively weak presence in the other three provinces.

Sharif’s effectiveness in tackling terrorism will depend also on his ability to build bridges with potential coalition partners in at least Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, which include religious parties. Clearly, there is a profound contradiction here.

On the other hand, it is Sharif’s political will to clamp down on cross-border terrorism and his ability to rein in the militant groups that are going to be the major determinants in the Indian (and US) policy calculus in the coming months.

However, any attempt on Sharif’s part to break the nexus between the security establish-ment and the militant groups is sure to be resisted by both protagonists and could open an extremely dangerous turf.

A Leap of Faith

This is where the US policy toward the elected government under Sharif assumes great importance. In a somewhat comparable situation in Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan could get away with making the Pashas accountable for their evil deeds due to the strong support he received from the international community.

The US record, however, is abysmally poor when it comes to Pakistan. In the pursuit of its Cold War-era regional strategies, Washington historically felt more comfortable transacting business with the Pakistani military. This was also the main reason why Pakistan’s democratic foundations became atrophied. Indeed, a leap of faith is needed today on the part of the Obama Administration.

The fact that the Pakistani electorate turned out in such massive numbers to elect their new government despite the very real Taliban threat signifies a vehement rejection of the politics of extremism. This should come as an eye-opener to the policy analysts in Washington.

Despite the river of blood that flowed under the bridge in the extremist violence through the past decade, Pakistan remains a moderate Muslim country of observant Muslims who wish to live in a democratic environment.

That is the single most important meaning of the big mandate given to Sharif, make no mistake about it. Therefore, what the US needs to factor in is that the most enduring method of fighting and isolating the forces of extremism in Pakistan will be by working with Sharif instead of hobnobbing with the Generals in Rawalpindi.

In sum, the elections in Pakistan pose a historic challenge to the Obama Administration. The big question is whether the US will want to be on the “right side of history” or remain rooted to past reflexes, which come readily.

The heart of the matter is that strengthening Sharif’s hands also makes smart regional policy. It means strengthening Sharif’s capability to break the nexus between the militant groups and the security establishment in Pakistan.

In turn, it means giving traction to the India-Pakistan normalisation and defusing the Afghan-Pakistan tensions and thereby creating the underpinning of regional cooperation and the New Silk Road.

A policy shift on the part of the US toward Sharif also could give a positive nudge to the overall Afghan-Pakistan relationship, which, of course, can help the stabilisation of the Afghan situation, thus serving a key objective of Washington’s post-2014 regional strategy.

To be sure, by electing Sharif as their leader, Pakistani voters have thrown down the gauntlet at Washington. Obama should pick it up.

(Courtesy: Asia Times)

M. K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). 

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