Pakistan protests: underlying implications for India

As the political turmoil in Pakistan continues to unfold, the underlying implications for India-Pakistan relations are discouraging.  

Shairee Malhotra
16 October 2014
Protest against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad.

Protest against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad. Biel Alino/Demotix. All rights reserved.The political saga of Pakistan unfolds once again, but this time with civilian threats to the incumbent Sharif government – Imran Khan’s PTI (Tehreek-e-Insaf), and Tahir ul Qadri’s PAT (Pakistan Awami Tehreek). Both sides are calling for the unseating of PM Sharif, albeit with differing back-up diatribes. Cricketer turned politician Khan insists that the elections that brought Sharif to power were rigged, while Canadian-born cleric Qadri accuses the government of corruption and autocracy. Pakistan, and indeed PM Sharif himself, is no stranger to such protests, which must remind him of Sharif’s ousting by Benazir Bhutto in 1993, and his overthrow by the Musharraf-led coup in 1999.

While the current impasse sees the leaders of both sets of protestors exhibiting partisan motivations, the elephant in the room is the Pakistan Army, whose role in the protests remains unclear, yet highly probable. Indeed, Army Chief General Raheel Sharif was called upon to mediate between the government and the protestors. The military is highly unlikely to risk a direct coup this time at the risk of losing much-needed international support, including $3 billion in American aid, the present cessation of order is in all probability linked to the Army’s attempt to continue ruling implicitly. In a country that is riddled with military interventions, this standoff presents an opportunity to the military to exploit schisms and shoulder responsibility, ultimately maintaining its covert control over Pakistani politics.  

Analysts speculate that the latest schism is being supported by the country’s security apparatus, and is a likely pretext for the military to maintain its control over its security and foreign policies, which have, since the inception of Pakistan in 1947, been completely under its purview.  Defense Analyst Hasan Rizvi concedes, “The military wants to force a change but without direct assumption of power”. 

These protests could potentially have negative implications for relations between Pakistan and its neighbor and archrival India, which so recently seemed to be on a rather promising path. The triumph of Pakistani democracy last year, and India’s recent election laid the ground for an encouraging revamping of the bilateral. Sharif’s civilian government signaled a hopeful impending shift in its traditionally precarious relations with its larger neighbor. The margin of Indian PM Modi’s electoral victory provides him with a rare unconstrained opportunity to decisively implement an effective foreign ‪policy in this challenging geopolitical neighborhood.  Importantly, the favour shown by both PM Sharif and PM Modi towards business can potentially de-link sensitive issues from broader economic engagement. So the relationship kicked off to a promising early start, with Sharif’s attendance at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, and the saree-shawl diplomacy that ensued.  

Relations between PM Sharif and the Army have historically been shaky. Sharif’s qualms regarding the Army, which ousted him in the 1999 coup led by Musharraf, are well founded. Over the previous year, Sharif’s policies must have been disturbing to the military: particularly, his peace overtures to India, the treason case against former President Musharraf, and negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban. Ceasefire violations across the border whilst Sharif, in a significant diplomatic gesture, sends mangoes to Modi, betray the tensions in strategic policy on the part of a country that lacks a cohesive power center. 

In tandem with Pakistan’s chequered history, the current tumult is subtly suggestive of a splat between the security establishment and the civilian government. The likelihood that the protests will lead to a resignation of PM Sharif is remote. But that his government will be significantly weakened and constrained in its decision-making is exceedingly plausible, with the Army and its authoritarian inclinations emerging victorious by simultaneously managing to keep the incumbent civilian leadership in check, and validating itself as “the antidote to civil disorder” as it has been doing. Sharif is viewed as tilting the civil-military equation that has famously been in favor of the military, and pursuing policies, particularly his reconciliation attempts with India, that directly clash with the Army’s maintenance of power. As a result, academic Ayesha Siddiqa predicts, “Sharif will now only be able to serve out the rest of his term as a “ceremonial prime minister”. Sharif will, out of a need to accommodate the military’s interests, be restrained in addressing India’s apprehensions including terrorism and ceasefire violations. An apparently transgressing Sharif will be curtailed, tamed and steered towards the pursuit of policies favorable to the military when it comes to India, and to post-NATO Afghanistan.

India might well be under the leadership of an emphatic and dynamic PM, intent on following a constructive approach towards its dealings with Pakistan. But, in a country that has historically oscillated between military rule and democracy, where processes and outcomes can never be guaranteed; these protests manifest the weakness of Pakistan - ineffective civilian institutions, and the continued tutelage of an Army obsessed with achieving strategic parity with India. As author Christine Fair notes, “Pakistan’s Army will persist in pursuing revisionist policies that have come to imperil the viability of the Pakistani state, and maintain the status quo of the most stable instability”. The modification of Pakistan’s security and foreign policies will be difficult for any civilian government that attempts to inflate its powers, as long as the dynamics remain consistent with the generals pulling the strings.

Instead of moving beyond traditional animosities and accelerating economic engagement, the bilateral risks returning to a stalemate, as appeasement of the military trumps economic engagement with India in the near future. Despite two enterprising leaders in power, any improvement in relations between India and Pakistan risks being sabotaged as long as the national security paradigm continues to be dictated from the barracks.

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