Home >Opinion >What Nawaz Sharif ouster as Pakistan PM means for India

Here we go again. Yet another political upheaval in Pakistan. Yet this time around, there were no dubious invocations of the “doctrine of necessity", no ominous movements of the 111th Infantry Brigade in the direction of Islamabad. Instead, an activist Supreme Court, with nuanced enabling by the Pakistan army, disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the grounds that he was in violation of Article 62(1)(f), which requires that members of Parliament be “sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest and ameen". And just like that, for the 15th time, a prime minister was robbed of the opportunity to complete a full term in office.

The legality of this ouster aside, the question on inquiring minds in India is whether Sharif’s dismissal will have a negative impact on India’s ties with Pakistan. The short answer is: it’s complicated. Sharif may have been head of government, but his authority was superseded by powerful masters who see themselves as the defenders of nazaria-e-Pakistan (the ideology of Pakistan) and care little for the trivialities of electoral politics or democracy.

It is often argued that Sharif, in general, was not averse to a friendly relationship with India. There is truth to this. As a businessman, Sharif saw increased trade between India and Pakistan as beneficial. As Pakistan’s prime minister, Sharif accepted the invitation to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite counsel from powerful quarters in Pakistan that he reject the invitation.

His attempts at mending ties with India complicated an already tenuous relationship between Pakistan’s civil and military leaders. The army sought to circumscribe Sharif’s authority and did so successfully through the orchestration of protests that nearly toppled the Sharif government. The terror attacks in Gurdaspur and Pathankot in 2015-16 further ensured that exploratory attempts by a new Indian leadership to engage with Sharif’s government were torpedoed.

However, it would be an oversimplification to dismiss Sharif’s role vis-à-vis India as insignificant. Sharif did play an important role in modulating the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s (MJC’s) hostility towards India through ways and means within his control. For instance, even after a Pakistani military court awarded the death sentence to the alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav on unsubstantiated grounds, the civilian leadership limited commentary that might have added fuel to the fire, despite pressure from the army, opposition parties and media.

India’s mishandling of the violence that erupted in Jammu and Kashmir in 2016 would have been ripe for the picking for any government in Pakistan. Yet, a few perfunctory statements on human rights aside, the Sharif government did not exploit India’s internal predicament as it potentially could have.

Earlier this year, news of a secret meeting between Sharif and Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal was leaked by Pakistan’s press. Sharif later apprised the army that the meeting was part of his government’s back-channel efforts to re-engage with India. Clearly, Sharif appeared to remain committed to doing what he thought he could to further ties with India. Observers of civil-military relations in Pakistan know that it is not the prime minister, but the country’s powerful armed forces, that dictate policy towards key regional and global actors, including India, China and the US. It is precisely for this reason that in a Takshashila discussion document last year, we argued that dialogue with a weak civilian administration in Pakistan is unlikely to yield positive results.

Sharif’s sacking is a reminder that the Pakistan army continues to be the most important determinant of the India relationship. The civilian leadership can, at the best of times, function as a modulating variable in the equation. It can temper and dampen the effects of the army’s general hostility towards India, but cannot be a seen as a significant countering force.

With Sharif disqualified, even this potentially moderating force is out of the equation. With a weak civilian leader at the helm, the MJC will be in full control once again. Of concern to India is not just the Pakistani army but also what a weakened Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leadership will do with the militant groups in Punjab. In the past, the PML-N has had electoral arrangements with the proscribed Deobandi militant groups. The PML-N-led Punjab government had even transferred funds to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba.

It also remains to be seen where the PML-N goes from here. For now, it appears that interim prime minister Shahid Abbasi will remain in power until the 2018 general election, but the party needs to resolve questions of leadership. PML-N unity will have direct consequences on how strong a front it can present vis-a-vis the army should the party manage to hold serve in the 2018 election.

In sum, recent events remind us that the office of the prime minister in Pakistan remains an easily dispensable position. If and when the position is filled, the prime minister’s decision making, especially on foreign policy issues, is circumscribed by a higher power, the Pakistan army. If a third-time prime minister who won a decisive electoral majority came up short in implementing his policy of normalizing Pakistan’s relationship with India, it is unlikely that another politician can. Unless an exogenous change shakes Pakistan, Rawalpindi will continue to determine the direction of Pakistan’s India policy.

Rohan Joshi and Pranay Kotasthane are with the geostrategy programme of the Takshashila Institution.

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