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  Opinion   Columnists  31 Oct 2023  Kamal Davar | Can Nawaz Sharif improve ties with India if he’s back at the helm in Pak?

Kamal Davar | Can Nawaz Sharif improve ties with India if he’s back at the helm in Pak?

The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was founder of the Defence Intelligence Agency and deputy chief of the Integrated Defence Staff
Published : Nov 1, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Nov 1, 2023, 12:00 am IST

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may have rekindled some hope for normalcy to return to Pakistan

Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. (File Image: AFP)
 Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. (File Image: AFP)

It’s an oft-quoted truism that the more things change, the more they remain the same. This is particularly true for neighbouring Pakistan, as it undergoes a severe existential crisis and faces a multitude of diverse problems. Last fortnight’s return home from self-imposed exile in London of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may have rekindled some hope for normalcy to return to Pakistan, at least among his supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Importantly, the Pakistan Army’s top generals too would be optimistic as they had orchestrated his return with as much conviction as they planned his ouster four years ago.

It is well known that Nawaz Sharif was then disqualified from holding public office, convicted of corruption charges and banned to his plush London flat at the bidding of Pakistan’s formidable generals. The fact that he is back now with the blessings of the generals and the approval of the judiciary might signal a shift in the internal political churning within turbulent Pakistan.

But will Pakistan’s Deep State -- the unholy trinity of the Pakistan Army, its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the terror “tanzeems” -- allow Nawaz Sharif to pursue his political moorings? Only the future will tell. Ousted cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the former PM, now languishing in Rawalpindi’s Adila Jail, had fallen from the Army’s good graces sooner than expected, which made the Pakistan Army turn back to Nawaz Sharif to return to the PM’s chair and do its bidding. That is quite clear to all Pakistan watchers at home and abroad. How long this honeymoon between the Army and Nawaz Sharif will last is anybody’s guess. But on the other hand, Imran Khan’s popularity continues to soar among the Pakistani public, which worries the Pakistan Army no end. No one can ever forget that when Imran Khan was ousted from power by the Pakistani military, his outraged followers had gone on a nationwide rampage, even attacking military installations -- something that had never happened in Pakistan’s history.

The Pakistan Army will be now on an overdrive, with some help from the judiciary, to disqualify Imran Khan and debar some leaders of his party, the Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), from fighting the coming general election. Imran is now in jail, currently on some cyber-crime charges, with nearly 200 cases registered against him. Despite having got bail, he remains in jail. The stage for Nawaz Sharif is being prepared by the Army to ensure that the PML(N) wins the coming elections. The Pakistani judiciary has also conveniently forgotten about the legal convictions against Nawaz Sharif before he was overthrown as PM four years ago by a judicial fiat. He was succeeded by the then generals’ choice, the charismatic Imran Khan, who then gradually fell out of favour by refusing to be the Army’s puppet and had to pay the price. The Pakistan Army, as is well known, loves to wield power albeit hiding behind a civilian façade, primarily for currying a favourable international image for their country.

The Pakistan Army fully understands, like everyone else, the country’s precarious financial situation. Pakistan is on the verge of bankruptcy. The United States is not too keen to pull Pakistan out of its financial mess, and neither are Pakistan’s earlier financial mentors in the Arab world. The Chinese too would also be wondering about the future of the over-ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) fructifying or not in the near future. Most Arab states and South Asian nations have deepened their economic engagement with India. The Pakistan Army’s leadership would be hopeful that Nawaz Sharif can lead their financially tottering nation out of its grave economic woes.

Pakistan’s external and internal political stability challenges continue to mount. The Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan are hardly enamoured of Pakistan’s efforts to send back lakhs of Afghan refugees who virtually made Pakistan their homeland. The Afghans also don’t recognise the British-imposed 2,630-km 1893-drawn Durand Line, the official border between the two nations, and tensions between the border police forces of Afghanistan and Pakistan continues to fester. Also, the extremist Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), based in Afghanistan, continues to mount periodic terrorist attacks on installations and at public places in Pakistan. A major irritant between Kabul and Islamabad has been the close relationship between the ruling Taliban and the TTP cadres, who are mostly Pashtuns.

Importantly, Pakistan’s relations with its western neighbour, a rising and globally important India, are at a low ebb, with many in Pakistan’s civil society clamouring for improving relations, especially in trade and travel, with India. The Army leadership is more than aware of what it loses with its short-sighted bigoted policies on India. However, it has consistently refused to change tack, except during Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s tenure as Army Chief and President of Pakistan, when relations between the two nations had acquired some form of normalcy. Many strategic analysts in the subcontinent have suggested that, in recent times, Nawaz Sharif does carry some ability to improve India-Pakistan relations from the rock bottom levels it is currently enmeshed in. However, Nawaz Sharif, in case he comes to power with the support of the Pakistan Army, will be able to mend India-Pakistan relations only as much as the crafty and formidable Pakistani generals allow him to. Thus, keeping the past track record of Pakistani generals in mind, it is safe to say that improvement in the relationship between the two nations is most likely to be a mirage. However, India being the largest and most powerful South Asian nation, without letting its guard down, should continue to strive for a peaceful and more harmonious region.

Tags: pakistan, political turbulence, nawaz sharif, pakistan army, imran khan, pakistan politics, pakistan economy, pakistan-india relations