Jailed Imran Khan party PTI-backed independent candidates seemed to have delivered a body blow to the formidable Pakistan Army and its newly minted protégé Nawaz Sharif in the National Assembly elections, as they maintained a steady lead over Sharif’s PML (N) till late in the evening. Nevertheless, Sharif declared victory, while acknowledging he didn’t have a majority, raising expectations among his supporters of his taking over as PM for the fourth time.
NEW DELHI: Jailed Imran Khan party
PTI-backed independent candidates
seemed to have delivered a body blow to the formidable
and its newly minted protégé
in the National Assembly elections, as they maintained a steady lead over Sharif’s PML (N) till late in the evening. Nevertheless, Sharif declared victory, while acknowledging he didn’t have a majority, raising expectations among his supporters of his taking over as PM for the fourth time and concerns among others that the army will indeed browbeat many of the independents to back him.
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To some, the return of Sharif, or his brother Shehbaz, as the leader of any coalition government cobbled together by the army, holds the promise of a thaw in ties with India, given his past camaraderie with PM Narendra Modi and his stated desire to improve ties with India. That the rapport they struck when both were in office remained strong was obvious again in 2020 when Modi wrote to `Mian Sahib’ to condole his mother’s demise, recalling his interaction with her when he visited Sharif’s home in Raiwind in 2015. He fact that Modi didn’t allow the bitterness that followed, emanating from the Pathankot terror attack barely a week after his visit, is a sign the Indian PM believes Sharif has his heart in the right place.
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The proponents of this peace theory will argue that unlike in 1999, when Vajpayee famously did his Lahore bus yatra, and in 2015 when Modi dropped by at Sharif’s residence, Sharif will have the backing of the Pakistan military on this occasion.
To an equal number, if not more, though, there’s zero incentive for India to plan a peace outreach to a country battling economic and political disarray, and amid the rapidly increasing power differential between the 2 countries. In the current situation, it perhaps make more sense for India to enter a quiet and discreet engagement with the army itself. That’s assuming of course the Indian government in present form will return in May and will realise at some stage its policy of zero engagement Pakistan may have run its course.
Modi’s three meetings with Sharif in 2015 – in Ufa, Paris and Raiwind – led to the resumption of the composite dialogue under the new name of comprehensive bilateral dialogue but only to be scuttled weeks later by the Pathankot airbase attack.
The Indian government will remember it had entered that dialogue process only after the assurance that the peace initiative had the full backing of then army chief Raheel Sharif. The Sharif-army schism had deepened earlier that year after Sharif failed to mention the J&K issue in the Ufa joint statement but that issue was sorted when Pakistan’s “core issue’’ reappeared in a joint statement issued after the NSAs met in Bangkok, days before the comprehensive bilateral dialogue was launched in Islamabad during then foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan. These events led to Modi’s dramatic visit to Sharif’s ancestral home on the latter’s birthday.
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Sharif will now need to account for a more evolved Indian position on terrorism that’s even less tolerant of any distinction between state and non-state actors. Secondly, if he really thinks his return could mark a new beginning, he must first stop Pakistan from acting more Catholic than the Pope by not insisting on the demand for India to undo its decision on Article 370 as a precondition for engagement. For good or worse, that issue is now settled, and India has shown it will not brook any effort by Pakistan to have a say in how it runs internal affairs of J&K. Thirdly, he will need to acknowledge Pakistan did itself no good by recalling its high commissioner and calling off trade with India. If he can address both, India will definitely be tempted to respond positively. Fourthly, and perhaps more importantly, he must begin by making some positive noises about the need to check cross-border terrorism, which has clearly outlived its utility for Pakistan, and follow it with some tangible action.