The hawkish “clarification” from Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office one day after Shahbaz Sharif’s interview suggesting to move forward with India, left everyone on both sides of the border wondering.
Though the common suspicion was that it was once again the Pakistan Army driving the traditional spoke in the wheel that it has been wont to do for the past 75 years (barring Musharraf’s near resolution), it was actually Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s close circle that advised him not to risk such an unpopular venture in an election year and hand a hammer to Imran Khan to beat them with, especially with the continuing economic decline.
Can Pakistan Still Play the Kashmir Card?
First about the “unpopularity” of peace with India sans any concessions on Kashmir from the neighbour: Pakistani people have much sympathy with Kashmiris in India, but they are far more worried about survival given the state of the economy, inflation, and rising unemployment. And therefore, peace/trade with India will not hurt the PDM’s/PMLN’s vote.
Indeed, if trade helps Pakistan’s economy and helps bring down prices of some essential goods, it will help the government in power and improve its prospects in the election no matter how Imran Khan spins it.
Therefore, my sincere offering to PM Sharif is that, whoever advised him to effectively rescind the peace overture, is truly out of touch with reality.
Pakistan’s youth bulge dictates that for the next 30 years, first-time voters will decide every election. And according to some surveys, 70% or thereabout of this youth wants to leave Pakistan, so bleak does their future appear to them.
From this, it is clear that this youth is far more concerned about its own future than sticking around to help free Kashmir.
‘Shahbaz Govt Needs To Revise Its Strategies’
But the tragedy is that PM Sharif’s advisors are most likely two generations older than the median age of their voters, and clueless about their concerns and aspirations. Sharif’s decision was an excellent one, but tragically, advisors from the Jurassic period disrupted it before it could even hope to develop into an initiative or process.
My good friend Murtaza Solangi suggested, and I agree with him, that a civilian government can certainly talk peace and trade with India even in an election year if the military establishment is supportive of the initiative.
No Molvis or Difa-e-Pakistan type of pressure groups will be let loose. And I am very confident that the military establishment is not only not interested in sabotaging the current government, but also wants to give it space to be able to govern and deliver so as to bring the country back from the brink of disaster. That leaves Imran Khan – but as has been clearly demonstrated, he can effect nothing without his former puppet masters.
The other equally important question is whether the Indian establishment/ government will respond positively if Shahbaz Sharif shelves the intractable Kashmir issue for the time being, delinking it with other matters, and sincerely moving towards trade with India? The answer is a complicated one.
Clearly, India too, has to gain from trade, even if not as significantly as would Pakistan. Yet, the current thinking in the Indian government is to give no response. And the reasons for that are partially entirely domestic, but partially also to do with Pakistan.
India's Response and the Way Forward
There is a firm belief in the Indian government that there is too much of a divide in the Pakistani military establishment that hawks within it would oppose/ sabotage the General Headquarters (GHQ) if it is supportive of the government over peace/trade with India.
Domestically, the cost for India would be a backlash from the hardliners who have been sold a hawkish narrative with regard to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan. That language works well for the BJP base and any softening would be seen as a weakness.
The key then for GHQ, is to create a consensus from top to bottom that trade and peace are the only way forward, and to re-write the Green Book and the PMA and NDU syllabi so that it is not perpetually undermined by the unrealistic hypernationalism inculcated in its ranks and spheres of influence that was once considered an asset. It is now the greatest of liabilities.
General Asim Munir and his team have their work cut out for them: consolidate their hold over their organisation, reform it, inculcate a culture of non-interference in politics and policy (domestic and foreign), and indeed, ingrain the superiority of such an arrangement over the historic concept of patriotism and self-identity of the country.
Since reimagining Pakistan has become quite the fashion suddenly, I would add that none of that will ever be achieved till the Army reimagines itself as an actual, normal army only, and not the defenders of the country’s ideological boundaries and overlords of the country.
Realisation only at the top does not work when right down to the bottom, you’re selling fairy tales. GHQ will need to start work on taking the entire rank and file from the delusional peaks all the way down to the plains of realism and pragmatism, post haste.
Because the world is not made up of fools, it can tell the difference between the talk and the walk. Once a real change becomes a reality, it will be believed internationally. And it will make it easier for foreign leaders in general, but in the context of this discussion, for any Indian Prime Minister to sell peace with Pakistan to his voters.
(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)