Nawaz Sharif’s un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous exit has once again ex­posed the fragility of Pak­istan’s democ­racy and will se­verely limit In­dia’s op­tions to re­solve bi­lat­eral is­sues through civil­ian di­plo­macy

India Today - - COVER STORY PAKISTAN - By San­deep Un­nithan

OOn July 27, just a day be­fore Pak­istan’s Supreme Court ejected Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif, In­dia’s min­is­ter of state for ex­ter­nal af­fairs Gen­eral V.K. Singh (re­tired), while speak­ing in Par­lia­ment, listed four rea­sons that had set back bi­lat­eral ties be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan—the Pathankot ter­ror at­tack, cross-bor­der ter­ror­ism, cease­fire vi­o­la­tions by Pak­istani forces and the death penalty handed down to al­leged In­dian spy Kulb­hushan Jad­hav. Left un­said was the com­mon thread bind­ing all four rea­sons—the Pak­istan army.

In­dia be­lieves the Pak­istan army runs ‘the in­fra­struc­ture of ter­ror’ that re­cruits and trains ter­ror­ists to carry out at­tacks—as in Pathankot and Uri in 2016—and pro­vokes fir­ing on the LoC to fa­cil­i­tate their in­fil­tra­tion. This deadly in­cen­di­ary cock­tail of fac­tors and a Pak­istani mil­i­tary court’s April 10 death sen­tence to Jad­hav have scorched In­dia-Pak­istan ties.

In June, when PM Naren­dra Modi met Sharif at the Shang­hai Co­op­er­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion sum­mit in As­tana, Kaza­khstan—their first meet­ing since De­cem­ber 2015—the two lead­ers were warm and cor­dial, en­quired about each other’s fam­i­lies, but that was it. No for­mal meet­ing was sched­uled and the two sat at sep­a­rate ta­bles.

Sharif’s ouster, which many in the In­dian es­tab­lish­ment have been pri­vately calling a ‘ju­di­cial ex­e­cu­tion’ and ‘soft coup’, has re­it­er­ated an old ax­iom: in Pak­istan, the mil­i­tary calls the shots and there is lit­tle civil­ian prime min­is­ters can do. Not even Sharif, whose nine years in of­fice make him the coun­try’s longest­serv­ing PM, even though all his three tenures were cut short.

“In Nawaz Sharif, you at least had a politi­cian who wanted to im­prove re­la­tions with In­dia,” says G. Parthasarathy, for­mer In­dian high com­mis­sioner to Is­lam­abad. Com­mend­able as his good in­ten­tions were, they were not backed by a real ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the limits of his power.

Sharif, iron­i­cally, was pulled out of the heart­land of Pak­istan’s Pun­jab prov­ince and built up by Gen. Zia ul-Haq to take on the charis­matic Be­nazir Bhutto. In­stead, he be­came the mil­i­tary’s dead­li­est foe. And this ri­valry saw Gen­eral Head­quar­ters Rawalpindi scup­per­ing both his cel­e­brated peace out­reaches to In­dian PMs—Va­j­payee in Lahore in 1999 and Modi, once again in Lahore, in De­cem­ber 2015. If it was the North­ern Light In­fantry hik­ing up the Kargil heights in 1999, it was four heav­ily armed Jaish-e-Mo­hammed ter­ror­ists shin­ning up a tree over the Pathankot air base on Jan­uary 2 last year, just a week af­ter PM Modi had at­tended the wed­ding of Sharif’s grand­daugh­ter in Lahore on De­cem­ber 25, 2015.

“Sharif’s ouster doesn’t have any spe­cific im­pli­ca­tions for In­dia,” says Tilak Devasher, for­mer spe­cial sec­re­tary, cab­i­net sec­re­tar­iat. “It is the army that de­ter­mines Pak­istan’s In­dia pol­icy, as also its Afghan, se­cu­rity and nu­clear poli­cies. So long as this per­sists, there is lit­tle that elected PMs, even those with a heavy man­date from Pun­jab, can do to make a sub­stan­tive dif­fer­ence in bi­lat­eral ties.”

The min­istry of ex­ter­nal af­fairs has been si­lent on the July 28 ver­dict against Sharif. One of­fi­cial called it “an in­ter­nal mat­ter of Pak­istan”. The

peace process with Pak­istan has been stalled for so long—nearly 18 months since the Pathankot at­tack—that the coun­try has prac­ti­cally dropped off the to-do list in South Block.

Jad­hav’s death sen­tence has sparked off fresh ac­ri­mony. In April, for­eign min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj is­sued a warn­ing over Jad­hav’s ex­e­cu­tion. “I would cau­tion the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment to con­sider the con­se­quences for our bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship if they pro­ceed on this mat­ter,” she said. An In­ter­na­tional Court of Jus­tice ver­dict in May has so far stayed the ex­e­cu­tion. Last month, Pak­istan re­fused an­other re­quest for con­sular ac­cess to Jad­hav, the 18th over the past year. In­dia has hit back by freez­ing visas is­sued to Pak­istani na­tion­als—from over 20,000 is­sued last year, the num­ber is be­lieved to be in sin­gle digits so far this year.

Out­go­ing Pak­istan high com­mis­sioner to In­dia Ab­dul Ba­sit hinted at hopes of re­viv­ing the bi­lat­eral di­a­logue when he said on July 31 that the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sors of the two coun­tries were “in touch”. For the mo­ment, how­ever, New Delhi doesn’t seem to be in­ter­ested with­out some move­ment on the four core is­sues it has iden­ti­fied. That is un­likely to hap­pen soon as Pak­istan lurches to­wards an­other pe­riod of do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal tur­moil, cul­mi­nat­ing per­haps with the June 2018 gen­eral elec­tions.

New Delhi is study­ing its lim­ited op­tions. Nawaz’s prob­a­ble suc­ces­sor, Shah­baz Sharif, is seen as some­one who un­der­stands the scope for civil­ian ma­noeu­vre and doesn’t en­ter do­mains the army con­sid­ers its pre­serve, in­clud­ing ties with In­dia. “His prag­ma­tism was demon­strated when, dur­ing his 2013 visit, he spoke for eco­nomic en­gage­ment be­tween the two Pun­jabs while in Amritsar, but when in Delhi, where he called on then PM Man­mo­han Singh, talked about the need to progress on is­sues like Kash­mir and wa­ter dis­putes be­fore any eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion,” says Devasher.

Pak­istan’s yaw­ing in­sta­bil­ity does not presage any dif­fer­ence in pol­icy or the fraught re­la­tion­ship, says Rana Ban­erji, for­mer spe­cial sec­re­tary, R&AW. “No newly elected civil­ian politi­cian will chal­lenge the army’s hold on se­cu­rity, neigh­bour­hood or Pak­istan’s nu­clear poli­cies in the near term. Nei­ther would the army en­cour­age any di­ver­sion­ary [moves] to ratchet up ten­sions at present.” Non-state ac­tors would be less pre­dictable, though, and In­dia would need to main­tain its height­ened vigil, he warns.

Ra­jeev Chan­drasekhar, the Ra­jya Sabha MP who in­tro­duced and later with­drew a bill ask­ing for Pak­istan to be de­clared a state spon­sor of ter­ror in March, says the bill has lost rel­e­vance. “The Pak­istan army is rel­a­tively im­mune to the prospect of be­ing de­clared a ter­ror­ist state. They will sim­ply run to China for help,” he says.

On Au­gust 1, Pak­istan army chief Gen. Qa­mar Javed Bajwa praised China ef­fu­sively at a re­cep­tion held in the Chi­nese em­bassy in Is­lam­abad to mark the PLA’s 90th an­niver­sary. “Pak­istan is in­debted to China for its unflinching sup­port to our per­spec­tive at all in­ter­na­tional fo­rums, be it ex­pan­sion of the Nu­clear Sup­pli­ers Group, the Kash­mir is­sue or Pak­istan’s full mem­ber­ship of the Shang­hai Co­op­er­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion,” he said. The mil­i­tary stran­gle­hold en­sures Pak­istan re­mains what lawyer and Se­nate mem­ber Aitzaz Ahsan called in 1985 a “bon­sai democ­racy”: “cre­ated by Gen­eral Zia to be put in the show win­dow for Amer­i­cans to ad­mire”.

Wash­ing­ton has been re­placed by Bei­jing. On July 28, China’s for­eign min­istry spokesper­son Lu Kang termed the Supreme Court ver­dict Pak­istan’s “in­ter­nal mat­ter” with no im­pact on the am­bi­tious $66 bil­lion China Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor. He hoped Pak­istan’s var­i­ous par­ties could “pri­ori­tise state and na­tional in­ter­ests, prop­erly deal with their do­mes­tic af­fairs, main­tain unity and sta­bil­ity and keep fo­cus­ing on eco­nomic and so­cial de­vel­op­ment”. Rawalpindi’s

new bene­fac­tor is clearly wor­ried about the safety of its in­vest­ments for which it will need the mil­i­tary.

“The mil­i­tary has cred­u­lously in­stilled in the Pak­istani mind that In­dia is a per­ma­nent threat,” says Vivek Katju, In­dia’s for­mer am­bas­sador to Afghanistan. “As long as that idea re­mains, the army will con­tinue to con­trol all se­cu­rity and for­eign pol­icy and leave sub­or­di­nate gov­er­nance to the civil­ians.” This adds an el­e­ment of in­sta­bil­ity to the In­dia-Pak­istan dy­namic and raises the pos­si­bil­ity of more ter­ror strikes, invit­ing re­tal­i­a­tion from the In­dian army.

Dur­ing the on­go­ing im­passe with Pak­istan, and in­deed since the Uri at­tack that led to last year’s Septem­ber 28 cross-bor­der com­mando raids, the In­dian army has been re­cal­i­brat­ing its ‘Cold Start’ mo­bil­i­sa­tion plan to give it a greater re­tal­ia­tory punch. One gen­eral calls it “our only strat­egy against Pak­istan”. The plan, most re­cently dis­cussed by army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat with his army com­man­ders at a war strat­egy meet­ing in Sri­na­gar on June 1, calls for the army to launch light­ning cross-bor­der thrusts in re­sponse to a high-in­ten­sity ter­ror­ist at­tack. The army has been stock­ing up on am­mu­ni­tion sup­plies to wage what it calls a ‘10-15 day in­ten­sive war’.

This is why a few In­dian mil­i­tary an­a­lysts, such as Bri­gadier Gurmeet Kan­wal (retd), sug­gest let­ting the In­dian army en­gage di­rectly with the Pak­istan army and raise it from the present level of hot­lines be­tween the di­rec­tors gen­eral of mil­i­tary oper­a­tions and DG, Coast Guard, and Pak­istan’s Mar­itime Se­cu­rity Agency. “The pri­mary cause of the lack of progress in talks with Pak­istan is that th­ese ef­forts do not seem to have its army’s sup­port,” he says.

In­dia has re­buffed at­tempts to al­low greater mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary ties be­cause that would mean le­git­imis­ing Pak­istan’s ex­tra-con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity. But, as Brig. Kan­wal says, there are com­pelling rea­sons to try this chan­nel. All agree­ments be­tween the two ar­mies, from the 2003 in­for­mal cease­fire along the LoC to pacts on no­ti­fi­ca­tions of ma­jor mil­i­tary ex­er­cises and not at­tack­ing each other’s nu­clear in­stal­la­tions, have been hon­oured in let­ter and spirit by both sides. If New Delhi sees the util­ity of talk­ing to Pak­istan that is.

FRIENDS WITH BEN­E­FITS Pak­istan army chief Qa­mar Javed Bajwa (cen­tre) with Chi­nese en­voy Sun Wei­dong (to his right) in Is­lam­abad on July 31

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