Pakistan poll aftermath doesn't bode well for India relations

The murky poll outcome is not conducive to pursuing a robust foreign policy, especially with India. The foreign ministry will need to lean heavily on the military establishment for guidance.

Former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party nominee for prime minister, Omar Ayub Khan (R), speaks during a press conference at PTI's central secretariat in Islamabad on February 18, 2024.
Former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party nominee for prime minister, Omar Ayub Khan (R), speaks during a press conference at PTI's central secretariat in Islamabad on February 18, 2024.

Pakistan poll aftermath doesn't bode well for India relations

Many observers tied Imran Khan's ouster to geopolitical currents via a vote of confidence in the National Assembly in April 2022 — specifically America's high-stakes investment in the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Imran was toppled in a well-crafted political ambush in which a disparate group of political parties under the umbrella of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) joined hands against his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government.

For seasoned political observers, it was a coup, and Imran himself said as much in his repeated criticism of former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and the United States for the "conspiracy".

In a television interview, PDM president Maulana Fazlur Rehman claimed that both Bajwa and former spy chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed instructed opposition parties to support the no-confidence vote.

While the Pakistani military has the final say on foreign policy matters and relations with India, the civilian government also plays a key role in shaping and implementing Pakistan's foreign policy. The leanings and abilities of government ministers — particularly the prime minister — definitely matter.

For example, when New Delhi revoked the autonomous status of the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir regions under Article 370 of the Indian constitution in August 2019, Imran responded with a series of punitive counter-measures, including the banning of Indian movies from being screened in Pakistan.

While Imran famously called Bollywood movies "trash" in 2022, his main political challenger, Nawaz Sharif, does not hide his affinity for Indian films and songs and is able to connect more easily with India.

In this photograph released by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) on December 25, 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hands with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore.

Nawaz, who served as Pakistan's prime minister three times before, has a good rapport with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and maintained relations with late Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who, like Modi, belonged to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Modi, 73, is almost guaranteed to secure a third term as prime minister in his country's parliament elections beginning in April.

Nawaz, 74 — leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) — was in the race for the top job again but has nominated his brother Shehbaz Sharif, 72, for prime ministership if his party can cobble together a coalition government.

Shehbaz succeeded Imran as prime minister in 2022 and is believed to be on reasonably good terms with the military establishment. Nawaz, as the family patriarch, is likely to wield huge influence in any government led by the PML-N.

Party leader Khawaja Asif — a former defence minister who is part of the Sharif inner circle — made that much clear in his published remarks.

"Nawaz is the leader. Even if he doesn't become PM, every last decision will be his," he said.

Nawaz's 50-year-old daughter, Maryam Nawaz, is being put forth as a candidate for the chief ministership of Punjab province — home to more than half of Pakistan's 240 million population.

Pakistan People's Party (PPP) chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari — the 35-year-old son of popular assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto — is expected to support the PML-N candidate in the premiership election in the legislature. Bilawal served as foreign minister in the government formed after Imran's ouster.

The PTI's prime ministerial candidate will be Omar Ayub Khan, the 54-year-old grandson of Pakistan's first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, who held the reins of Pakistan from 1958 to 1969.

The murky poll outcome means the foreign ministry will need to lean heavily on the military establishment for guidance.

'Hidden message' to India

In a "victory speech", even before the official election results, Nawaz dropped hints of better relations with India.

"We want our relations with the world and neighbours to improve," Nawaz said.

"Pakistan, at this point, cannot afford any kind of fight," he said.

The Indian media seized on his statements as a "hidden" and "indirect" message for India.

He also discussed having an action plan to get Pakistan out of "this vortex" regarding the country's current political and financial problems.

His speech seemed to be as murky as the election outcome, where no party has scored a clear victory, and no combination of parties looks likely to provide a stable environment in which decisive foreign policy decisions regarding India can be made.

The tainted 8 February elections have proven that Imran and his party remain popular despite a relentless crackdown against their supporters and leaders.

Imran survived an assassination attempt in November 2022 and has been in prison since August last year. The party's number two leader and former foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, is also in jail.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan denied the PTI use of its cricket bat voting symbol — a significant disadvantage against the PML-N and the PPP. So, the party fielded its candidates as independents, and they still led the overall tally of National Assembly seats.

The PTI alleged that it was robbed of a big victory through election rigging; dozens of its candidates were declared losers despite winning in the vote count.

A vendor sells flags featuring jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party PTI flag colours following a court verdict imprisoning Khan for 10 years, in Peshawar, Pakistan, 30 January 2024.

The murky poll outcome is clearly not conducive to pursuing a robust foreign policy, especially engagements with India.

With other neighbourly relations to manage, such as Iran, Afghanistan and China, the foreign ministry will need to lean heavily on the military establishment for guidance.

Pakistan's relationship with India has traditionally been the most intense and complex and has been subjected to heavy media scrutiny. The PML-N may have the establishment's backing, but public legitimacy is more critical in diplomatic dealings with India.

India viewed both Imran and Qureshi as stubborn leaders who insisted that New Delhi reverse its decision on Kashmir before relations between the two countries could improve. The Kashmir issue is an intractable one and will remain so in India-Pakistan diplomacy.

However, more mundane things — which are also somewhat sensitive in the relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbours — can be discussed.

The screening of Indian movies across the border and making Pakistani television series available in India can be discussed, trade and transport links can be explored, diplomatic representation can be restored to the pre-2019 level, and travel and sports can be promoted.

The murky poll outcome is not conducive to pursuing a robust foreign policy, especially with India.

Pakistan ended the last transport link with India — a bus service linking Lahore with New Delhi — in 2019 following India's Kashmir move.

Indian leader Vajpayee conducted his famous bus diplomacy, arriving in Lahore in 1999 on the inaugural service. He was welcomed warmly by Nawaz.

However, within months, India and Pakistan fought the Kargil War. Army chief General Pervez Musharraf overthrew Nawaz in the same year.

Musharraf served as Pakistan's president from 2001 to 2008 and had several infamous diplomatic dramas with India.

Since Musharraf's rule ended, the army has not taken direct government control but exercised power in a de facto hybrid system, accommodating a weak civilian leadership.

In the current political situation, the military has to win back the popular support it lost due to anger over how Imran was ousted and the crackdown against the PTI.

It is open to question what kind of diplomatic moves Pakistan can make towards India, while the internal situation requires full-time attention.

Leadership style

There is also the issue of Nawaz's personal leadership style when it comes to India. The Sharif family are not mere politicians; they own major businesses and have intricate relations with Indian tycoons.

Nawaz's third term as prime minister was between 2013 and 2017 before the Panama Papers scandal exposed their overseas property deals and tarnished the family's reputation.

Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (C) waves to supporters next to his younger brother and former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif (R) and his daughter Maryam Nawaz on February 9, 2024.

Nawaz returned to Pakistan in October last year after nearly four years in self-imposed exile. The Supreme Court disqualified him from holding office over corruption allegations in 2017.

Nawaz conspicuously did not appoint a foreign minister but managed external relations with an advisor.

For a nuclear-armed country with wide-ranging engagements with major powers and close interactions within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), it was seen as an inexplicable oddity.

Nawaz's personal style of diplomacy was such that the Pakistan high commissioner in New Delhi did not know until he learned from journalists that the Indian and Pakistani leaders were going to meet in Ufa, Russia, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in 2015.

Bilawal — a foreign minister during Shehbaz's premiership — travelled to India to attend a SCO ministerial meeting in May 2023.

That was the first time a Pakistani foreign minister travelled to India in 12 years and the first high-profile visit since Nawaz attended Modi's 2014 swearing-in.

The Bilawal visit did not have bilateral engagements, and the acrimonious words indirectly exchanged by the two sides then laid bare the nature of their relationship.

Despite the political uncertainty over the poll outcome, what is clear is that the next Pakistan prime minister, foreign minister, and army leadership have their task cut out for them.

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