India is circumspect about the emergence of a new political landscape in Pakistan from Wednesday’s parliamentary elections which catapulted cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan on course to become the country’s new Prime Minister. There are three main reasons for India’s wariness: (1) Khan is a new political commodity (2) Khan’s proximity to religious radicals and the military and (3) the army’s sway on Pakistan’s foreign policy especially on the policy with India.
A new government is set to take over in Pakistan at a time when relations between New Delhi and Islamabad are at an all-time low. In fact, the ties have been at the nadir for the last two years ever since the terror attack on an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot in northern Indian state of Punjab, bordering Pakistan, in January 2016 which left seven persons dead.
What caused serious misgivings in New Delhi was that the attack came after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, in a surprise gesture on his way back home from Kabul, stopped over in Lahore for an hour to greet the then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif on his birthday and wish him on Sharif’s daughter’s marriage. Eight months down the line, in September of the same year, terrorists of Pakistan-based outfit Jaish-e-Mohamnmed stormed an Indian army camp in Jammu and Kashmir state killing 19 people. While the attack on the air base led to the calling off India-Pakistan Foreign Secretary-level talks, the other incident in September prompted India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal to boycott the SAARC Summit that was to be held in Islamabad in November 2016 citing that the atmosphere was not conducive to discussing cooperation among the eight member-countries of the South Asian grouping whose foundation rests on economic issues.
India, which has always maintained that talks with Pakistan cannot take place as long terrorism emanating from that country continues, is closely watching the post-election political configurations the composition of a new government in Pakistan.
Observers in New Delhi point out that Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s support to Islamist groups and the tacit backing it got from the army might force him to take a more hawkish stance on Islamabad’s engagement with New Delhi than Pakistan Muslim League now headed by former PM Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz.
Even during shot spells of civilian rule in Pakistan, the military establishment has always had the final say in conduct of foreign policy especially with India. That familiar narrative is not expected to change after a new civilian dispensation takes over this time too. Another story that is set to continue is the use of the terror groups by the Pakistan army to needle India.
It is not that India and Pakistan has not made efforts to normalize bilateral ties in the past. But the exercises have always met with premature deaths due to terrorism sponsored by Islamabad. One has to recall how the two countries reached the brink of a war after the terror attack on Indian parliament house in 2001 with both sides amassing troops along the border before finally pulling them back.
In fact, India-Pakistan relations are prone to fits and starts. They falter every time there is a major terror incident in India like for instance in November 2008 when Pakistan-based terrorists attacked India’s financial hub killing 166 people or attacks on the Indian air base and army camp in 2016.
Besides, the Modi government may not like to take the risk of investing political capital in ties with Pakistan as it is just months away from fresh general elections. Secondly, there are deep concerns in India about the participation of several candidates belonging to terror outfits in the recent elections in a move that is seen as an effort by the Pakistan army to mainstream these outfits. For example, aides of Mumbai terror attack in 2008 mastermind Hafiz Saeed, one of the most wanted criminals in India, contested the election under the banner of Allahu-Akbar Tehreek. New Delhi is keeping a watch how closer they move to a new government in Pakistan.
The writer is a Delhi based policy analyst