It’s fair to say that the prospect of seeing Nawaz Sharif as Pakistan Prime Minister, following his party’s election victory on Saturday, represents for India the “least worst” outcome. Given Nawaz Sharif’s record of endeavouring for entente with India in his previous tenure in office, and his own experience of elemental distrust with the Pakistan Army – which overthrew him in a coup in 1999 – there is reason to believe that his government won’t nurse the visceral anti-India hatred that has characterised other political formations and institutions in Pakistan in the past.
Campaigning ahead of the elections, Nawaz Sharif spoke reassuringly of his earnestness about building relations with India, even going so far as to suggest that he would hold an inquiry into the Kargil war that led up to his ejection from power by the then Army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf. Along with his manifest attempts to reach out to Indian journalists who were in Pakistan to cover the elections, it signals that he is pressing all the right buttons and projecting his government as arguably being the most “India-friendly” that the Pakistani electorate would have thrown up.
To the extent that India, grappling with myriad problems at home, could do with a lot less venom from our neighbour to the northwest, Nawaz Sharif’s return to power does give reason for measured optimism of an improvement in bilateral relations.
There are other reasons too for Indians, watching the election process in Pakistan, to be inspired by the refusal of Pakistan’s voters to be intimidated by Talibani threats to boycott the elections. The impressive voter turnout, despite the violence during the campaign and on election day, points to a touching faith in the capacity to bring about democratic change that resonates among Pakistani people. Some of the credit for that, of course, goes to Imran Khan, who inspired a new generation of Pakistanis to overcome their cynicism and vote (although his supporters’ cussedness about accepting their party’s inability to measure up to the heightened expectations of a tsunami is disappointing).
And, yet, the eruption of “Aman Ki Asha” sentiments (most visibly in newspaper headlines and editorial commentary in India) is excessively premature and sets India up to repeat the mistakes of the past. We’re likely to get reams of gushing commentary from candle-waving enthusiasts in coming days, as Firstpost‘s Praveen Swami noted, but there’s reason to go easy on those Aman Ki Asha dreams.
Pakistani politicians have a tendency to sound high-minded and statesman-like with India whenever an election is imminent, only to switch to opportunistic anti-India rhetoric when in power. Ahead of her election victory in 1993, Benazir Bhutto too sounded positively unctuous in her public pronouncements on relations with India, and the prospects for peace in Kashmir. But once in power, and fully in the pockets of the Pakistani Army and ISI apparatus, she clambered onto a truck in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and bayed for azaadi for Kashmiris.
The tragic reality of India-Pakistan relations is that history has imposed too heavy a burden for any one leader to make a dramatic difference, particularly when he does not enjoy the complete confidence of the Pakistani “deep state”. Although Nawaz Sharif’s re-election has inspired Aman Ki Asha hopes, it’s worth bearing in mind that even during his previous terms in office, India wasn’t entirely immune to terrorist attacks originating from Pakistani soil. For instance, it was under his watch that the ISI gave underworld kingpin Dawood Ibrahim sacnctuary after the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai.
This time around, too, Nawaz Sharif doesn’t have the elbow room – in the form of a majority in Parliament – to stamp his authority decisively, and could be pushed into making compromises with fundamentalist parties that don’t share his evident goodwill for India. And as the deadline for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan looms, the Pakistani Army and the ISI will very likely inject themselves forcefully to secure their interests in the region, which will put them in conflict with India’s. Nawaz Sharif’s ability to walk the tightrope will be on test, but it’s unreasonable to expect him to seek political martyrdom another time by taking on the Army and the ISI.
In that sense, while it’s true that the democratic transition in Pakistan signals that the benighted country has possibly turned a corner, and the outcome of the election is rather more benign than it might have been, the outbreak of Aman Ki Asha-itis, so to speak, in India points to unreasonably heightened expectations on this side of the Wagah border.
The one saving grace is that, given that the UPA government is in a state of siege and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh‘s personal credibility is in tatters, there is insufficient room for them to go all-in on a narrative-changing peacenik overture with Pakistan. But the risk is that desperate governments are prone to desperate measures.