Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. (ANI File)
The more things change, the more they remain the same — or so goes a popular truism. However, will it be so in the context of the vexed state of India-Pakistan relations after the recent ouster of the Imran Khan government in Islamabad? This does engage the minds of people and strategic analysts on both sides of the border between the two nations. Historical precedent, of course, points to the continuation of turbulence in varying forms and intensity as unnecessary mistrust and animosity have been the hallmarks of the two nations carved out of undivided India in 1947. Will Pakistan’s new rulers — the combined Opposition under newly-appointed Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and backed by the Pakistan Army — change tack vis-a-vis India or persist with its traditionally myopic and self-destructive policies towards its larger neighbour to its east.
Analysing the likely future contours of troublesome India-Pakistan ties is, however, shorn of unpredictably as past history portends. To the conservative watcher, Pakistan will continue to adopt the same policies towards India as the latter consistently looms large in all of Pakistan’s politico-strategic formulations.
Pakistan’s anti-India and Kashmir obsessions coupled with the export of terror remains the cornerstone of its foreign policy. It posing a threat to India along with a hegemonistic China appears to be a sturdy pillar of the anti-India stratagem of both countries.
Before surmising the likely future contours of India-Pakistan relations, it will be worthwhile to study the recent events in Pakistan which propelled a change of guard in Islamabad. That even charismatic cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan could not complete his full term as Prime Minister was in keeping with Pakistan’s unenviable record — of none of its PMs having ever completed a full five-year term. That Imran Khan assumed office by a narrow majority in 2018 was indeed helped by the Pakistan Army and Pakistan’s Deep State — though this is denied by both.
That the gradual worsening of relations between Imran and Pakistan’s most powerful institution had substantially contributed to Imran forfeiting his prime ministership cannot be dismissed either. It is also a fact that Imran Khan, despite his ouster, retains credible public support in his country and has reinforced it by citing the "foreign conspiracy" angle in his removal as Prime Minister.
Referring to his differences with the United States as the primary reason, Imran Khan had stoutly defended his Moscow visit two months ago to meet President Vladimir Putin on the very day the Russian Army invaded Ukraine (February 24) and his refusal to criticise Russia for it had, reportedly, angered the US administration. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, delivering a public lecture, appeared to extol the country’s traditionally warm relationship with the United States and had sounded at variance with his own PM.
Additionally, according to reliable media sources, Imran Khan had also earlier scuttled Gen. Bajwa’s efforts to resume trade ties with India and improve its overall relations with it. However, Gen. Bajwa, who was also trying for an extension, also fell out with his Prime Minister on the contentious issue of the next chief of the Pakistan Army, with just-retired Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed reportedly being groomed to replace Gen. Bajwa by Prime Minister Imran Khan himself. After a long standoff between Imran Khan and Gen. Bajwa on this issue, the relatively little-known Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum was appointed as the next ISI chief.
Meanwhile, Gen. Bajwa’s recent eloquent statement at the Islamabad National Security Dialogue 2022, in which he stated that "I believe it is time for the political leadership of the region to rise above their emotional and perceptional biases and break the shackles to bring peace and prosperity to nearly three billion people of the region", has made waves all over. By all accounts, Imran Khan and his government would have not liked their Army chief making politically loaded statements and stealing their thunder. Thus, the inevitable had to happen and it was just a matter of time.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif reportedly enjoys cordial relations with the Pakistan Army and thus, at least in the initial part of his tenure, could bank upon the support of the military establishment. Pakistan’s new PM making various references to Kashmir should not bother us too much – we know, after all, that J&K is an integral and inalienable part of India, and we must realise that the Pakistani leadership has a political compulsion to refer to it off and on — it really does not matter.
The next general election in Pakistan is just over a year away. Imran Khan has already sounded his electoral bugle, exhorting the Pakistani masses to stand up to the "American bullies" and the Pakistan Army.
Whether Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Bilawal Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party will be able to share the spoils of power equitably and fight effectively together against Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, supported by the many minor political conglomerates, will be evident in the coming months. Imran Khan may have been removed from power, but he has certainly not been finished politically.
Notwithstanding the political travails in Pakistan and whoever comes into power in Islamabad, the formidable stranglehold of the Pakistan Army onto the levers of power and decision-making is unlikely to change anytime in the near future. New Delhi must, therefore, endeavour to develop direct contacts with the Pakistan Army — that is the only way in which India-Pakistan relations might mend, or seen any improvement. A robust democracy in Pakistan remains a pipedream, but that is something the Pakistanis must decide for themselves. If the Pakistan Army, directly or indirectly, can contribute to peaceful and terror-free relations, it would be of help. From Gen Bajwa’s very recent statements it appears the Pakistan Army establishment has realised the precarious situation their country is in, especially economically, and has felt the dire need to mend fences with both India and the United States. Let India, without dropping its guard and ensuring security preparedness of a high order, give the Pakistani establishment another chance. Pakistan too must never cross the "red lines" which antagonise India, and thus ensure, as Gen. Bajwa put it, "keep the flames of fire from our region". Only the immediate future will show the Pakistan Army’s sincerity or otherwise in this regard.