Saturday, 18 May 2013 | Hiranmay Karlekar | in Edit

Optimism over Nawaz Sharif’s victory is best kept on hold, particularly since several prickly issues such as Kashmir, Siachen and punishment to 26/11 culprits remain. Also, the Army and the ISI are still influential

Indian reactions to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s comfortable victory in the recent elections in Pakistan have expectedly ranged from the cautious to the optimistic. Those favouring caution rest their case on the long history of hopes of a sea-change in India-Pakistan relations being dashed, and of assurances held out by Islamabad being invariably belied. Optimists, on the other hand, rely on the highly encouraging statements made by Mr Nawaz Sharif, the PML(N) boss set to be Prime Minister, on the importance he attached to improving ties with India, as well as on his reference to the promising beginning made towards opening a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations during his meeting with Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Prime Minister of India, in 1999.
One needs to consider a few facts before coming to any conclusion. That nearly 60 per cent people voted in Pakistan despite the threats held out by the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, is encouraging. So is the fact that despite voting exceeding more than 100 per cent in 49 polling stations, the election was generally free from malpractices. The harsh fact, however, remains that of the two significant parties professing secular ideologies; Pakistan People’s Party has been severely mauled and the Awami National Party virtually wiped out. While other factors have contributed, the fact that both had to bear the brunt of murderous violence unleashed by the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, and that this was bound to have a significant impact on their electoral performance, cannot be wished away. The message is simple: The balance of political power in Pakistan has shifted to the right and the Taliban and the Al Qaeda will be increasingly in a position to call the shots.
These forces have already made clear that they would view any effort to improve ties with India with extreme disfavour. To what extent can Mr Nawaz Sharif defy them? The question assumes a heightened significance in the light of reports that Mr Sharif enjoys a cordial relationship with Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the mastermind of 26/11, while his brother, Mr Shahbaz Sharif, has friendly ties with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, both of which hardly require any introduction as vicious terrorist outfits. Will the brothers be in a position to defy organisations like these, besides the Taliban and the Al Qaeda?
The most charitable view will be that one needs to see how things actually work out on the ground. Optimism is best kept on hold particularly since several prickly issues like Kashmir, Siachen, and punishment to the culprits behind 26/11 remain besides that of India’s stakes in Afghanistan, which are vitally important to this country. It is important to note the latter as Pakistan holds on to the absurd position that it needs a friendly (read subservient) Government in Afghanistan to give it what it calls strategic depth against India. As a corollary thereof, it is bitterly opposed to India playing any role in Afghanistan after the American withdrawal. Besides pressures and verbal attacks, there have been tell tale signs of his involvement in two severe car bomb attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008 and October 2009.

India has been deeply involved in Afghanistan’s economic development since 2001. Its financial commitment in this regard totals $2 billion. Besides investing in health and education, it is playing a major role in rebuilding air links and power plants, constructing road links and exploiting Afghanistan’s rich mineral deposits. The ties had further deepened during President Hamid Karzai’s visit to India in 2011, when the two countries had signed a strategic partnership pact in which New Delhi made a long-term commitment to development, peace and security in Afghanistan.
It is not just a question of India’s investments. There will be serious security implications for it if the rightward shift in Pakistan is followed by an Al Qaeda-Taliban take-over of Afghanistan consequent upon the withdrawal of American forces in 2014. Much would, of course, depend on whether the withdrawal is complete or there will be some troops present. If the latter is the case, a great deal will hinge on the size of the contingent and its role. Clearly, India needs to keep all its options open, including cobbling together a cooperative arrangement with Russia, China and, perhaps, Iran, to keep the Taliban and the Al Qaeda at bay in Afghanistan in the event of a total American withdrawal.
Any such effort is likely to put Pakistan’s nose out of joint. New Delhi, however, can hardly afford to ignore shoring up its own security to pursue the will-o’-the-wisp of a new chapter in its relations with Islamabad. This is particularly so given the many imponderables scripted into the India-Pakistan narrative. The most important of these is the role of Pakistan’s Army, which is pathologically hostile to India. The latter’s prestige within the country has declined markedly over the past several years. The biggest blow was administered by the raid by the United States’ SEALs that led to Osama bin Laden’s killing on May 2, 2011. The second factor has been its inability to stamp out the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan which has unleashed a reign of terror in the country. The Pakistani Army has justified its supra-constitutional position in the country on the ground that it was the guarantor of the latter’s security vis-a-vis India. It has now been shown up as a force that cannot even cope with a domestic terrorist outfit that its own Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate had helped raise.
Dwelling on the reduced stature of the Army in Pakistan, Anil Bhat, in his informative work, After Abbottabad: Terror to Turmoil in Pakistan, cites the appointment of Lt-Gen Zaheerul Islam as the head of the ISI in “sharp contrast to the will of the Pakistani Army that Lt General Shuja Pasha be given an extension.” According to him, this was the first time that such a thing had happened in that country. Mr Bhat, however, had earlier pointed out, “Whatever exposures there have been about Pakistan army and ISI, no matter how low their stock is, it has made absolutely no difference to India.”

The message for New Delhi is clear: If you get carried away in haste, you will repent at leisure.