Sharif can’t send Singh a friend request

In some quarters of New Delhi and elsewhere there is talk that with Nawaz Sharif in office it might be possible to renew meaningful discussions with Pakistan on a range of outstanding bilateral issues. Obviously, the emergence of a largely legitimately elected civilian regime in Pakistan is a welcome development for New Delhi.

However, any enthusiasm, let alone euphoria, about the matter is entirely premature. A number of compelling reasons suggest that a degree of circumspection may be in order.
To begin with it is not yet clear whether Mr Sharif is in charge of his own house. The enigmatic, chain-smoking Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army, Gen. Pervez Kayani, has not even hinted that the military will in any way relinquish its many prerogatives. Any halfway informed observer of Pakistan’s polity and politics knows fully well that for all practical purposes the military establishment enjoys a stranglehold on the making of Pakistan’s key foreign and security policy choices. Indeed, a prominent Pakistani scholar and public intellectual, who for obvious reasons cannot be named, once told me that the foreign office makes policy towards Africa! Given the military’s firm grip on policy on India and especially the Kashmir issue, it is downright unlikely that Mr Sharif will undertake any initiative which does not match the sentiments of Rawalpindi.
This constraint, of course, is a virtual structural element of Pakistan’s politics. Beyond this hurdle, however, there are a host of other reasons why improving relations with India cannot be one of Mr Sharif’s key priorities. With the impending departure of the remnants of the International Security Assistance Force from Afghanistan come 2014, he will perforce have to turn his gaze Westwards. After over a decade of investing in the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani security establishment will not abruptly shift its priorities towards the renewal of a dialogue with India. Their obsession with maintaining a pliant regime in Afghanistan will remain their principal concern.
Mr Sharif can only ignore this imperative at his own political peril.
The military’s intransigence towards India is well known. Additionally, it is also now confronting a nightmare of its own creation. After decades of nurturing a range of terrorist organisations to further its strategic goals in Afghanistan and Kashmir, it is now confronting the wrath of many of these beasts at home. Under the circumstances, even if it were to allow Mr Sharif to make positive overtures towards India, they would be mostly cosmetic and time-bound. Once the military succeeds in reining in some of these recalcitrant creatures and, thereby, restoring a semblance of stability in the land, it will, without doubt, seek to stoke the embers of insurgency in Kashmir.
Finally, as far as foreign and security policy concerns go, the military will not allow Mr Sharif to ignore the US-Pakistan relationship which, despite extraordinarily deft Pakistani diplomacy, is in the doldrums. With a new US secretary of state in office, the impending drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan and the continuation of the drone attacks on Pakistan’s western borderlands, the US-Pakistan relationship may be entering a particularly fraught phase. Given that the country has to negotiate this vital turning point, devoting significant efforts towards addressing endemic problems with India will be seen as a mere distraction.
There are other pressing reasons that will also inhibit Mr Sharif from turning to India apart from the military’s well-known reservations about this country and its concerns about the state of the US-Pakistan relationship. At a time when Pakistan’s exchequer is in hock — it is in the midst of negotiating yet another structural adjustment loan from the International Monetary Fund and beseeching its Saudi benefactor for renewed largesse — a focus on relations with India is a luxury. Of course, there are those who repose much faith in the putative power of trade to ameliorate political tensions. However, even they would have to concede that a relaxation of trade ties with
India will do little to address Pakistan’s current, dire economic woes.
Nor for that matter is India, which is perennially energy-short, in any position to help Pakistan address its horrific power shortages. At a time when entire cities are reeling under 20-hour power cuts, there is nothing that India can offer to Pakistan that might alleviate this critical problem. If Mr Sharif wishes to avoid even deeper and more sweeping social unrest this summer across much of the country, he will have to focus his attention on the country’s calamitous power crisis.
To sum up: the limits that the security establishment has long set on civilian regimes remain firmly in place; its concerns for the moment are firmly focused on quelling domestic disorder and it remains preoccupied with the future of the US-Pakistan relationship and, of course, the endgame in Afghanistan.
Mr Sharif, in turn, must devote much of his energy towards addressing Pakistan’s current economic problems, not to mention its acute power woes. Under the circumstances, despite the usual platitudes in the halcyon glow of post-election euphoria that Mr Sharif has mouthed to a series of Indian visitors, there is much reason to be suitably cautious about the rekindling of a viable dialogue with New Delhi.

The writer is the director of the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington

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