What next for Indo-Pakistan relations?

Maryam Nawaz, Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif wave to supporters following the Pakistan general election
Shehbaz Sharif (right) is set to stay on as prime minister, although his brother Nawaz Sharif (centre) is believed to wield considerable influence (image: K.M. Chaudary/AP/picture alliance)

Islamabad's frail new ruling coalition will need the blessing of Pakistan's military before attempting to improve ties with New Delhi

By Murali Krishnan

Pakistan is trying to move on from a controversy-marred national election in which none of its major parties were able to win a clear parliamentary majority.

Political leaders have now managed to reach a power-sharing agreement for a new government. The ruling coalition would include the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which is backed by the country's powerful military, together with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and several smaller factions.

The two major parties agreed to return Shehbaz Sharif to the premiership, and appoint Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, as president.

New government reliant on military backing

New Delhi, which has been keeping a close eye on its neighbour and rival, sees the multi-party coalition as "unstable and weak", sources said.

This is partly due to allegations of vote rigging surrounding Pakistan's February 8 election. The new government is also going to face intense pressure from the supporters of jailed ex-leader Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, which wields the single largest bloc of lawmakers in parliament.

"God willing, we will have better relations with our neighbours," Nawaz Sharif said in an indirect message to India during the counting of votes.

Supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party protest in Karachi against alleged vote rigging in Pakistan's national election
Supporters of Imran Khan's PTI party protest alleged vote rigging: on 17 February, the commissioner of Rawalpindi – where the country's military has its headquarters – admitted to helping rig the country's elections, then promptly resigned from his post (image: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images)

The PTI bypassed what they claim to be a government clampdown by having most of its candidates run as independents.

With the military allegedly backing Khan's rivals during the campaign, some in India say the outcome of the election dented the legitimacy of the Pakistani army and the authority of its chief General Asim Munir.

Still, the military-friendly parties have managed to keep the PTI out of government.

"Finally, it looks as if Pakistan's military has got what it wanted, which is a weak and pliant coalition led by parties it wants," said a senior security official on condition of anonymity.

Nawaz Sharif wants 'better relations' with neighbours

Former diplomats and policy experts pointed out that the new coalition would have to start by focusing on the Pakistani economic crisis and security issues inside the country.

"Democracy is still fragile there and the armed forces continue to play a larger-than-life role. Pakistan faces multiple crises and their government will have to grapple with these as a priority," said Meera Shankar, a former Indian ambassador to the U.S..

However, the fact that Shehbaz Sharif has managed to hold on to power offers a ray of hope. His brother and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has sought rapprochement with India in the past, and since his return from exile, he has made several conciliatory statements.

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Ajay Bisaria, India's former high commissioner to Pakistan, said New Delhi prefers to look at Pakistan as it is rather than as it should be. He said that the Indian government would likely keep quiet on the allegations of vote rigging, even though it appears clear that the electoral process was deeply flawed and managed by the army.

"By contrast, the U.S. has called the election 'competitive'," Bisaria said, adding that it is the U.S.'  "perceived interest" to keep Pakistan's army "in good humour, rather than weighing in for democratic values and risking an endorsement to Imran Khan's pushback".

For India, the key issue is whether or not the new government is able to address the issue of cross-border terrorism, according to the diplomat.

"India has no illusions that the army in Pakistan would determine policy towards India," he added. "Any civilian government in the current state of play will have only a marginal say on India policy, but the Sharifs clearly have a better track record on reaching out to India than Imran Khan in his three-year PTI government."

Business as usual regarding India?

India and Pakistan have long been at odds over Kashmir and cross-border clashes, with India's changes to the region's legal status causing Pakistan to suspend bilateral trade in 2019 and leading to the current diplomatic freeze.

While Pakistan has been under formal civilian rule since 2008, the military has maintained a strong influence over politics. 

Shanthie Mariet D'Souza, Fulbright-Nehru Visiting Chair at the School of Public Policy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said the Pakistani military would continue to call the shots: "Irrespective of which party wins or coalition forms the government, civil-military relations in Pakistan are heavily tilted in favour of the military. There has never been a strong civilian government in Pakistan's history and that explains why the India-Pakistan peace process has never taken off in the true sense of the term."

She says Nawaz Sharif's pro-peace posturing means little without the army's consent. "It looks doubtful as any pro-peace gesture from Islamabad would have to start by rejecting its strongly-held positions on Kashmir which can tilt the Pakistani military's pre-eminence," added D'Souza.

Murali Krishnan

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