Nawaz Sharif’s India Policy Was Doomed By Turf War With Military

Umer Farooq

There are political commentators in the country who can compellingly argue that Nawaz Sharif’s hobnobbing with Indians, and especially Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was the main factor behind his removal from office in July 2017.

The back story is simple: Nawaz Sharif invited prominent Indians, including Modi and other business tycoons from India, to his private residence. He met Modi for one-on-one talks without the presence of his foreign secretary. This annoyed the then military establishment and they decided to get rid of him. But apparently there are some loopholes in this story. Why did the then Army Chief – in Nawaz Sharif’s case it was General Bajwa – himself start offering talks to India immediately after the removal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office? Twice during his six year tenure, former COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa formally offered talks to India in his speeches on official forums. Bajwa repeatedly talked about making Pakistan a hub for regional connectivity, which would obviously have meant connecting energy starved South Asia with energy rich Central Asia. Why would a man who had such elaborate plans about normal business-like relations with India have Nawaz Sharif removed from office just because he was hobnobbing with Indian leaders and businessmen in an informal manner?

Apparently, this story or analysis of events surrounding Nawaz Sharif’s removal from office appears as a counterfactual in the face of General Bajwa’s own forceful public espousal of the idea of talks with India. Why would a sensible and responsible official like an incumbent COAS or the entire top brass have Nawaz Sharif removed from office on account of his overtures to India? A careful reading of history will compel us not to dump the analysis out of hand.

After all, this pattern was repeating itself in the case of Nawaz Sharif. Only a decade before General Bajwa was COAS, his predecessor, General Musharraf – when he was COAS – behaved in a completely similar manner. General Pervaiz Musharraf went the extra mile in offering a hand of friendship to Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while refusing to attend the reception in honor of the same Indian Prime Minister when the latter was being hosted by Nawaz Sharif in Lahore in 1999. As military ruler, Musharraf was an ardent advocate of normalization with India and on his watch, Pakistan did institute several confidence building measures with India. Musharraf’s foreign minister, Khursheed Kasuri, is very fond of recalling that Musharraf and Vajpayee were close to reaching an agreement related to a final settlement of the Kashmir dispute in their back-channel contacts. Then why did the same General Musharraf sabotage Nawaz Sharif’s initiative at the Lahore Summit in 1999 to normalize relations with India by sending troops to capture the peaks at Kargil?

This seems to have become a pattern. The military top brass opposes civilian governments and rulers when they try to cozy up with Indians, but the same generals behave differently towards Indians when they are in control of the government in Islamabad.

Nawaz Sharif is exceptional in his keen political wish to normalize relations with India. His profile as the leader of central Punjab, where most of the anti-India sentiment resides, makes him ideally suited to settle political and military disputes with India. I remember listening to his speech in Rawalpindi Liaquat Bagh two days before the February 1997 parliamentary elections, in which he expressed his intention to go the extra mile in normalizing relations with India. His landslide victory in 1997 proved, in the words of political commentators, that his plans towards India had wide public approval.

In the wake of the 1997 elections, Nawaz Sharif never relented in his pursuit to reach a diplomatic understanding with Indian leaders for a smooth working relationship. Every time since 1997, Nawaz Sharif, however, has failed to evolve a consensus in Islamabad’s officialdom or among the ruling elite of the country to back his plans towards India.

In the absence of a consensus in the government’s ranks, those who were likely to face most of the impact of the normalization process should be given the allowance to feel threatened with the Prime Minister’s style of hosting Indian dignitaries at his private residence. Expectedly as the “son of the soil,” the “Nixon Goes to China Syndrome” operated in two directions in the case of Nawaz Sharif. It is likely that Nawaz thought that no one would dare challenge him, the most popular leader of Central and Northern Punjab, in his endeavors to normalize relations with India. He also believed that he would not need the support of other centers of power who are relevant to the process of policy making related to Pakistan’s India policy. He was proven wrong on both counts.

The Pakistani military’s thoughts on its India policy have also evolved over the years. There are clear indications that the Musharraf government’s instituted confidence building measures with India were not very popular in the military. Nevertheless, the Pakistani military establishment has reached the conclusion that normalizing relations is the only option available to Pakistan.

Two factors have largely contributed towards these evolving thoughts. Pakistan’s bleak economic and financial conditions, which have persisted since the last two decades make it impossible to sustain tense relations with India. Tense relations inevitably mean brinksmanship and military mobilizations, which cost the national exchequer gravely. More importantly, none of our friends is ready to foot the bill for any kind of military adventure towards India.

Not surprisingly, a top PPP leader once told me that the policy brief on India policy sent to the PPP government by the then COAS, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani was that the country’s India policy should be based on the objective of avoidance of any major conflict. By and large, this has been a persistent policy brief to successive governments in Islamabad from GHQ in Rawalpindi. Only General Bajwa went a few steps ahead from this standard position. He started advocating Pakistan’s geostrategic location as a regional connectivity hub.

The question remains that if there has been a change of heart among the top brass, then why was a civilian leader like Nawaz Sharif made to suffer? Many keen observers are of the opinion that Nawaz Sharif’s endeavors were perceived by the then military top brass as a measure aimed at undermining their position in the power structure of the country.

Nawaz Sharif, in this view, wanted to normalize relations with India and to start trading with Pakistan’s much larger, prosperous eastern neighbor. The evolution in the dynamics of regional security which would have emerged as a consequence of these commercial ties would have provided the necessary impetus to institute a change in the fossilized power structure of the country. This was where the military establishment felt threatened.

Perhaps Nawaz Sharif’s personalized style of decision-making cost him dearly. In the absence of institutionalized decision making and policy making processes, foreign policy issues prove highly divisive in the close-door power struggles in our society. A lack of communication makes difference of opinion and difference of perspectives translate directly into furiously contested power struggles. The situation that developed in the wake of the Kargil conflict and which led to the 1999 coup is a classic example of destructive turf wars that have proven too costly for the country.

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