Canberra, 5 September 2014


After a span of fifteen years, the Indo-Pakistan equation has returned to a replay of the situation as it existed prior to the Kargil War in 1999—the parties in power in both the nations are the same and Pakistan is edging towards another attempt at becoming a democracy. 1999 was a definable milestone in the two nations’ love-hate relationship in more ways than one—in February the Indian Prime Minster made a historic visit to the Pakistani city of Lahore by bus and signed the Lahore Declaration; in May the Kargil War began when Pakistani military crossed the Line of Control and occupied several heights in the Kargil sector of India-controlled Kashmir; three months later a bungled attempt by the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to remove the Chief of Pakistani Army, General Pervez Musharraf who was the architect of the Kargil fiasco, saw Sharif being unceremoniously bundled off to a Middle-Eastern exile and the installation of the fourth military regime in power.

The road to ‘normalcy’—whatever that means in this vexed relationship—after 1999 has followed the proverbial routine of a step forward immediately followed by two steps back. The attacks on the Indian parliament in December 2001 brought the two nations to the brink of war, which was only avoided through intense diplomacy that facilitated de-escalation and standing down of more than one million troops. Thereafter, around 2004 the relationship started to warm up and the momentum of improvement continued even when the Congress party returned to power and formed the government in India.

This sense of bonhomie was shattered by the 2008 attacks on Mumbai by Islamist militants proven to be orchestrated, backed and controlled by Pakistan’s intelligence services. This episode once again brought the nations’ military forces face-to-face and conflict was only averted through US mediation. The fundamental lesson that India took out of this serious breach of its security was that the Pakistani government was unable or unwilling to control some elements who were dedicated to fomenting trouble in India within their establishment. This brought in a sense of caution in all Indian dealings with Pakistan. The return of a democratically elected government in Pakistan did not improve matters much since the country was going through domestic convulsions and increasing tensions with the US involved in the Afghanistan War.

Sharif’s return as Prime Minister from political wilderness in May 2013 was the first democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history and his statement that he vowed to normalise relations with India gave a glimmer of hope that bilateral relations would somehow become better. Further impetus to this belief was given by the Pakistan Army’s (perceived) weakened role in national policy making in the wake of the Musharraf regime’s fall from grace. The 2014 electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India also seemed to fit the way forward. However, India and Pakistan can neither ignore the events that have transpired in the 15-year gap nor can they avoid the impact of the changed politico-strategic conditions and hope to start from where they had left off in 1999. The equations have changed and a lot of water has flowed down the Indus in the interim period.

The New Equation

Pakistan is once again ruled by a right-wing party with a clear democratic mandate. Democracy seems to have got a tenuous foothold in the nation although it is now being sorely tried by the agitation in the capital that has in the past few days turned violent. (See previous Post on this Blog ‘Pakistan – Again on the Brink’ dated 26 August 2014) The past decade has brought about a distinctive anti-India flavour to the public debate in Pakistan. In an attempt to weaken him, Sharif is being portrayed as ‘pro-Indian’ in many circles, with the subtle encouragement of the Army. In India also the situation is not the same. Pragmatic statesmen and long-term visionaries, like Vajpayee the Prime Minister in the first BJP government, are no longer in control of the party or the government. The leadership today is far more hawkish, vehemently nationalistic and somewhat less experienced in foreign affairs. Pursuing a conciliatory approach with Pakistan may not suit their agenda and they would be more prone to adopt a tit-for-tat attitude on issues of border violation etc. that has the potential to escalate very rapidly.

The Indian government called off the Foreign Secretary level talks between the two nations scheduled for 25th August, a few days before the event. From information that is available it seems certain that the decision was taken at the highest level, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in consultation with the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. The reason for this decision was also very straight forward—despite a direct message from the Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh not to meet with Kashmiri Hurriyat Conference leaders, the Pakistani High Commissioner went ahead and conducted the meeting. From a purely diplomatic view point the decision by the Indian government is correct, if unexpected. The Hurriyat leaders are Kashmiri separatists but Indian citizens and the meeting took place in India, which is logically objectionable. Even though there is a 19-year history of Pakistani High Commissioners meeting with these separatists before high-level summits, it is an objectionable behaviour pattern and the new BJP leadership was well within its rights to emphatically state that they were not having any of it. It is also possible that Pakistan was ‘testing’ the Modi rhetoric and came up stumps! The Pakistanis had started to take it for granted that it was their ‘right’ to meet Hurriyat leaders whenever they felt like it. It looks as if that is a practice that will have to cease at least under this regime.

So where does that place Nawaz Sharif and his fledgling democracy? [Here the difficult domestic situation facing Sharif at the time of writing and its possible repercussions are not being analysed.] When Nawaz Sharif accepted Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to attend the latter’s inauguration in May, it was against the wishes of the Pakistan Army. In India he was also dissuaded from meeting the Hurriyat leaders, which further angered the Pakistani Army. It has been reported that the Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif relented and ‘granted permission’ for the Prime Minster of his country to accept the Indian invitation only after much negotiation and pleading. This is as clear an indication as any other that the Army continues to control Pakistan’s India policy. It is very clear that Sharif did not do himself any favours with the Army when he stayed back overnight to hold bilateral talks with the new Indian Prime Minister. He may yet be on the Army’s gun sights! The current political imbroglio in Islamabad might just provide the veneer of legitimacy the Army needs to oust yet another democratic government. If a coup does come to pass, Nawaz Sharif will have the dubious distinction of having been removed by the Army twice in a row.

From an Indian perspective, the Hurriyat question is many-sided. First, the Hurriyat are hard-line separatists who tend to support terrorism and also are aligned with the infamous ISI. They claim that they stand for an independent Kashmir, which is a situation that Pakistan does not support. The Hurriyat has never been able to demonstrate that they represent the Kashmiri people at large and their influence is questionable. There is also the precedent of Pakistani officials meeting the Hurriyat leaders although what they have achieved so far is difficult to perceive. The Pakistani stance is that the Hurriyat is the undeniable ‘third-party’ in the Kashmir discussion while India considers the issue a purely bilateral one with no space for a third party even as ‘observers’. Within India however there is no dearth of ‘soft liners’ who believe in continually catering to Pakistan’s whims and who say that the stoppage of talks was a negative step. The fact is that realistically it was time for the Indian government to stop appeasing Pakistan, since the long history of appeasement has not born any tangible result.

Although some commentators believe that the actions were precipitate, there is nothing very dramatic about Prime Minister Modi’s decision—in a recent visit to Kashmir he had very clearly articulated his belief that Pakistan was waging a proxy war against India through cross-border terrorism. When this pragmatic statement is considered in combination with the regional outreach that has characterised the BJP government’s foreign policy, the message is difficult to misinterpret, even for a nation with Pakistan’s duplicity in dealing with India. Modi has clearly made a statement through his actions, that he is not willing to ignore threats to national security for the sake of ‘improved’ normalcy in bilateral or multi-lateral relations. What the new BJP government has done is to force Pakistan to take stock of the situation and decide for themselves what is important to them—a stable relation with a growing and important neighbour or overt support for a group of irrelevant separatists. Along with the instructions to the Indian Army to retaliate in kind to any border violation, the cancellation of the talks should send the clearest message of intent that India has send to Pakistan in a long time.

Pakistan’s Problems Amplified

The Sharif administration is not without its warts. The two separate ‘sit-ins’ currently taking place in Islamabad have rattled the Sharif government and is indirectly of their own making. The first is led by Imran Khan the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and the second by Tahirul Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). Both seek to oust Nawaz Sharif from power. The sit-ins cater to the widely held belief that unless the current system is completely overhauled, the ‘right’ people will never be elected to the parliament. There are two sub-sets to this situation that was the catalyst for the current standoff.

First: even senior officials of the Election Commission that oversaw the 2013 elections accept that there was widespread vote rigging. This prompted Imran Khan to call for a recount, or audit, of four constituencies where the PTI candidates lost and in return proposed that the same process be carried out in four constituencies where the PTI were successful. Nawaz Sharif completely ignored this demand and Imran Khan upped the ante, he declared war on what he calls ‘entrenched interests’, read as the Sharif brothers and their cronies, to be dislodged. Nawaz Sharif could not have accepted the call for a recount—his party is built on power and patronage, in itself the only ideology that it understands. If there is any loss of power at the central leadership the party is bound to meltdown.

Second: Qadri’s rebellion is the result of an unprovoked attack on his Lahore offices by the Punjab Police, in which 14 of his followers were killed and over 90 injured. His attempts to get the police to register a First Information Report (FIR) in which the Sharif brothers were also named came to nought. The reason for Nawaz Sharif to resist the FIR being lodged rests in history. Pakistan’s most popular political leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq on the charges of Bhutto being named in an FIR in a simple murder case. No political leader in Pakistan will ever let his name be on an FIR in a murder case—the chances of landing up at the gallows in a military prison are far too high. After all by virtue of the established cycle of rule in Pakistan, the military should by now be preparing to take over the country.

Civilian governments since 2008 in Pakistan have tried repeatedly to wean the Army off its stranglehold on national security and foreign policy, with very limited success. Sharif has gone so far as to publicly condemn, through the statements of his closest confidants, former General Musharraf. This action reportedly broke a commitment that he had made to the Army to free the ex-President, which has incensed the Army’s rank and file. There are other reasons why the military is ‘unhappy’ with Nawaz Sharif. One, in order to contain the increasing internal security problems in the nation he held talks with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) against the advice of the military; two, his intention to improving relations with India is not taken accepted by the military as well as right-wing elements in Pakistan; three, the Prime Minister is continuing his attempts to bring the Afghan policy under civilian control, an initiative that the military, especially the ISI, opposes tooth and nail. The battle lines are drawn-whether Sharif intended it be so or not. There is unlikely to be any sympathy for Nawaz Sharif in the Pakistan Army barracks.

There is a belief in Pakistan that the Army orchestrated the current protest marches so that they could embarrass the Sharif government and increase the pressure on it to toe the military line. Even though this is a democratically elected government, the Army is more than capable of staging a coup, if it wanted to. For a number of reasons the military does not want to intervene directly and a military coup is highly unlikely, for the moment. After all the international community and domestic opinion does not now have a tolerant attitude towards military dictators; the Pakistan Army has lost its sheen and is not as popular as they used to be with the masses anymore; and the country is in such a terrible socio-economic mess that the military will not want to take charge and be blamed for the chaos that is inevitable. On the other hand, they want to still be the dominant power brokers in the country. For the time being the Army has asked the political parties to settle the issues through dialogue—none of them have a choice but to oblige.


There is a sense of Deja vu in the emerging situation in Pakistan, a similar condition played out in 1992-93 when Nawaz Sharif was in his first Prime Ministerial tenure. History further records that the Kargil misadventure of the Pakistan Army was executed during Nawaz Sharif’s second tenure as Prime Minister, without his knowledge as he has always claimed. It is perhaps fitting that the Indian government has acted on its stated resolve to safeguard the nation’s security interests and send a clear message to Pakistan that bilateralism, as envisaged in both the Shimla and Lahore Agreements, is the only way forward if meaningful relations are to be built. India is stating, unambiguously that dialogue and terrorism does not go hand-in-hand, Pakistan has to rein in its rogue elements if the peace process is to make any progress.

There is a belief in the ‘softer’ pro-Pakistan lobby in India that India should not initiate any action that would weaken Nawaz Sharif’s position, and they point to the cancellation of the Foreign Secretary talks. This is humbug. It is time for India to take a stand and tell the governing body of Pakistan, whoever they may be, military or civilian, that their perfidy must stop before talks can be resumed. The future of Nawaz Sharif and his government, or for that matter the future of democracy itself in Pakistan, should in no way have a bearing on India’s actions to protect itself and its national interests. It is highly likely that Pakistan will now want to bring in third party mediators, a situation that India should avoid at all costs. Diplomatic talks are extremely important, but at what cost and to whom is what matters most. The recent decision by Prime Minster Modi is a clear line in the sand and Pakistan will ignore it at great cost to itself. Whether or not the Pakistan Army—the Great Puppeteer—understands this completely altered situation or not will determine the future of the sub-continent.


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)


  1. Sanu,
    Very comprehensive indeed..
    You will agree that the opportunities to teach the adversary military lesson are long gone, what with Simla et al. The present establishment in Delhi would definitely not be a push over , but they would be more ” Chanakyan ” in dealing with the Pak low intensity threat..we need only be patient and await the expected ” implosion ” of the ” Land of the Pure” , whilst giving them back doubly as much as we get..we will soon be so superior economically in the region to let the jihadists dictate terms..
    American withdrawal from AfPak would pose renewed challenges to us all right..

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