A democratic Pakistan is no guarantee for India
At least there is a chance for relations to improve
Pakistani Prime Minister-elect Nawaz Sharif speaks to media after his election win (AFP / Arif Ali)
It was under Prime Minister-elect Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1999 that Pakistan sent its army units into the frozen heights of the Kargil glacier in Jammu and Kashmir, northern India. After a long and bloody skirmish, Indian troops evicted the invaders, while then Pakistani army chief General Pervez Musharraf claimed credit for the incursion. Fourteen years on, that decision by Musharraf, deflecting as it did criticism of Sharif, carries renewed value for Pakistan's new leader as he sets about extending an olive branch to New Delhi.
Sharif’s victory in elections last week marks the first time that Pakistan, whose recent history is scarred by coups and military despots, will transfer power between democratic governments. It is cause for celebration among many, although things are not so cut and dried in its relations with India. Historically, democratically elected civilian leaders have not always meant peaceful relations between the two countries, whose shared border has in fact been most at peace when Pakistan has been under army rule.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was foreign minister in 1965, when his refusal to hand over power to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman after the general elections led to a war with India and the liberation of Bangladesh. His daughter, the revered democracy icon Benazir Bhutto, failed to bring about a substantial peace agreement with India. The rule of her Pakistan People’s Party was instead characterized by a turbulent relationship with New Delhi, which reached its nadir this year with the killing of Indian prisoner Surjit Singh in a Lahore jail.
The concerns continue with Sharif. The army remains restive under a civil boss, a problem accentuated by the Prime Minister-elect’s pressure on the military to accept the supremacy of the civil government. Moreover, the elections themselves signaled the deep seated domestic conflicts in Pakistani politics, with over 100 dead in bomb blasts and shootouts during campaigning, and 15 dead on polling day. The figures bring to more than 47,500 the number killed in terrorist violence in the last 12 years.
This unrest, coupled with the state of perpetual armed tension with India, will have had much to do with the 60 percent voter turnout on election day, one of the largest recorded in Pakistan. The two countries will hope that their nuclear arsenals remain in the warehouse, particularly given the economic slowdowns that are affecting both and the fact that, unlike India, Pakistan does not have the economic strength for a real and decisive military confrontation, despite support from the US and China.
Sharif has no option but to talk peace with India, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can gain the political strength to do so. It is unlikely he will hold an absolute majority in parliament, and will instead depend on independents and smaller parties. His party will govern only in Punjab, with other powerful satraps controlling Sindh, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier where the popular Imran Khan will call the shots.
But it will be in India’s interests to encourage Sharif in his peace initiatives. The right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has already criticized Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s open invitation to Sharif to visit India. But the BJP does not reflect the real yearning in India for lasting peace with its neighbor, which will also resolve such niggling issues as the situation of political, military and civil prisoners in both countries, and an escalation of the Siachin tension, which is bleeding both countries in an ongoing battle of attrition.
Nawaz Sharif’s warm if off the cuff remarks about his desire to visit India offer just that olive branch. The two governments will do well to rise above the babble from self-serving hyper-patriots, including the BJP, to resume full scale peace talks with each other.
John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council
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