GUEST COLUMN

No tears for Sharif

40-Imran-Khan People power: Imran Khan’s supporters celebrating the removal of Sharif as prime minister in Islamabad | AP
  • The claim that Sharif wanted better relations with India and that his ouster is an unfavourable development has little objective basis.

40-Kanwal-Sibal

Nawaz Sharif’s ouster is surprising. And not so surprising, because his position had earlier been jolted by the massive ‘dharnas’ orchestrated by Imran Khan, with the army’s tacit support. The Panama papers gave Khan and his backers the opportunity to go for the jugular and successfully use the judiciary to remove the prime minister.

This blow to Sharif is not surprising also because his prime ministership had ended prematurely on two occasions—in 1993, when president Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed him over corruption charges, and again in 1999, when he was deposed by Gen Pervez Musharraf. Ironically, Sharif had begun his career under the regime of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, and became prime minister in 1990 with the help of the Inter-Services Intelligence.

This is to underline the point that real power in Pakistan rests with the army, and that elected civilians have to operate within the limits acceptable to it. Sharif has had a tumultuous relationship with the army, which is intolerant of any attempt to disturb the balance of power between it and the civilian government. He has maintained the record of prime ministers not being allowed to complete their full term.

The reasons for divesting Sharif of his parliamentary seat, and thereby his prime ministership, are a bit surprising. The supreme court did not find him guilty of corruption per se, but declared that he had violated articles 62 and 63 of Pakistan’s constitution, which demand that members of parliament be “truthful” and “righteous”, concepts imported into the constitution from shariah by Zia-ul-Haq.

How “truthfulness” and “righteousness” can be defined under law is difficult to comprehend. The idea that the removal of Sharif denotes a strengthening of democracy in Pakistan, as some argue, is questionable. The prime minister was removed through moral gimmickry enshrined in constitutional law to serve the purpose of Islamising the Pakistani state.

One should actually see this development as a product of the Islamisation of the Pakistani judiciary, and the growing Islamic impulses in Pakistan, which weaken whatever democracy that exists in the country. Ironically, Sharif’s own party had opposed the removal of these two shariah-inspired articles from the constitution.

It is not clear whether Sharif has been disqualified permanently, or whether there is any scope for seeking a review of the supreme court’s decision. The court has ordered a criminal investigation against him and his family. A loyalist has been appointed as interim prime minister, to be replaced by Sharif’s brother Shahbaz Sharif, currently the chief minister of Punjab.

These developments in Pakistan have negligible implications for India. Our relationship with Pakistan is essentially frozen, with little prospect of any move towards reducing tensions, much less of resuming any serious dialogue. Internally, Pakistan will be politically adrift until the 2018 elections; India-Pak relations will remain in limbo until then.

Pakistan continues to fuel disturbance in Kashmir. Infiltration attempts and firing across the Line of Control continue. The Kulbhushan Jadhav affair remains unresolved. The Pakistani establishment is buoyed up by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the promise it holds for the country’s development. What it signals geopolitically, in terms of China’s support for Pakistan against India, has already been expressed in China blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and preventing the UN Security Council sanctions committee from designating Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as an international terrorist.

The claim that Sharif wanted better relations with India and that his ouster is an unfavourable development has little objective basis. If we accept the thesis that policy towards India is determined by the Pakistani army, and that any forward movement in India-Pakistan relations has to be within the parameters laid down by the latter, then a breakthrough in relations will occur only when the army wants it, and to the degree that it does not affect its institutional interests, both political and economic.

Sharif never lived up to the hopes and expectations that he would genuinely try to improve relations. Some of these expectations were fed by our western partners, whom Sharif had convinced that he wanted friendly ties with India. The US, the UK and some others get perturbed at any breakdown of dialogue between India and Pakistan, as it raises concerns about a potential nuclear showdown.

Pakistani leaders, including Sharif, have exploited these concerns, and their dishonest pleas to western leaders that they want to have a dialogue with India, that issues cannot be resolved without dialogue, and that it is India that is blocking it, fall on receptive ears. The impression then grows that India, as the bigger and more responsible country, is not being sufficiently open-minded.

In his four years in power, Sharif’s public position on India-Pak issues has been very negative. His statements in the UN General Assembly have been provocative—even more than those of Musharraf. He aggressively raked up the Kashmir issue, never mentioned the Simla Agreement, called for self-determination in Kashmir under UN resolutions, called Kashmir the jugular vein of Pakistan, claimed that it will inevitably become part of Pakistan, raised the issue of alleged human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir internationally, proclaimed Burhan Wani as a martyr and dragged India into international arbitration on the Indus Waters Treaty in a bid to arrest the construction of power projects in Jammu and Kashmir, as allowed under the treaty.

Terror attacks in Pathankot, Udhampur, Uri and Nagrota happened under his watch. He took no punitive action against those responsible for attacks in Mumbai and other places. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi was released, as was its chief Hafiz Saeed, despite him being declared a terrorist by the UN. And Saeed was allowed to publicly call for jihad against India.

Sharif or no Sharif, our problems with Pakistan will persist.

Sibal was India’s foreign secretary.

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