IT is rarely that one hears a word of praise for India, from senior serving or retired members of Pakistan’s military. It was, therefore, surprising to read an article in Pakistan’s well-regarded Express Tribune, written by Air Vice Marshal Shehzad Aslam Chaudhury, on January 13, which was full of praise for India. Chaudhury was later appointed High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, at a time when the LTTE was posing a serious threat to the Sri Lankan government. In his article, he lauded India’s foreign policy, which he said, enabled New Delhi to get huge supplies of Russian oil on ‘preferred terms’, while cooperating closely with the US to meet challenges posed by China. He noted: ‘One hates to admit, but Pakistan was politically outmanoeuvred by India on J&K by rescinding Article 370 of its Constitution, which gave a special, if not disputed status, to the region.’ He said Pakistan would need to understand what this implied. He also had high praise for India’s IT industry, its leading industrialists, and special admiration for prime ministers Narendra Modi and Manmohan Singh.
India has clarified that it seeks ‘normal, neighbourly relations’ with Pakistan, ‘free from terror, hostility and violence’.
Queries are being raised about what these revelations implied. It has to be borne in mind that Pakistan’s former army chief, General Bajwa, who recently retired, had good ties with Washington. He was Pakistan’s vital channel of communication with the Biden administration and favoured reconciliation with India. It would, however, be impossible to discern what the intentions of Air Vice Marshal Chaudhury are. But one can say that while the Pakistan military establishment may proclaim confidence in their country’s policies and assessments on relations with India, it is not ignorant of the ground realities and the inherent limitations. Moreover, while PM Shehbaz Sharif is known to be a moderate, he is in deep political trouble, with parliamentary elections slated for later this year, amid the rising popularity of Imran Khan.
Despite the efforts of Sharif, Pervaiz Elahi, the CM of Punjab, who was earlier an ally, has resigned, announcing that he would be joining Khan. This has forced the holding of elections to the state legislature, which are expected to be won decisively by Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party and its allies.
Any meaningful talks or real breakthroughs with Pakistan are hardly possible till elections to its parliament are held. It is well known that Sharif had received a message from his office, advising him to speak tough on India, and he duly complied. Moreover, the tone and tenor of statements by Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Minister of State Hina Rabbani Khar are, to put it mildly, objectionable.
Khan, meanwhile, has worked effectively to get the provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa dissolved.
Amidst all these complexities, there also appear to be differences between Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and donors like the World Bank and IMF. However, after meetings with World Bank and IMF officials in an international donors’ conference in Geneva, Sharif claimed that the meetings were extremely successful. He said pledges worth $9.7 billion were announced for Pakistan’s flood victims and Islamic Development Bank promised $4.2 billion, World Bank $2 billion, Saudi Arabia $1 billion, Asian Infrastructure Development Bank $1 billion, Asian Development Bank $500 million, USAID $100 million, China $100 million, Italy $23 million, Japan $77 million, Qatar $25 million, UK £36 million and France $10 million. The UAE subsequently announced its readiness to contribute $2 billion as economic assistance. It is clear that donor countries will release the money only after Pakistan completes its negotiations with the IMF. There are still a number of unanswered queries posed to Pakistan.
Pakistan now appears set for elections later this year. Provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have followed suit. Khan’s party also appears to be gaining some ground in Sind. Unable to return to Pakistan from London, Nawaz Sharif fears charges against him, which have not yet been withdrawn. One has to wait and see what the political dynamics in Pakistan, and particularly in its populous Punjab province, are going to be. But the trump card is presently in the hands of Khan. While he is widely regarded as being anti-India, he was evidently persuaded by General Bajwa to mend relations with India. This led to a ‘back channel’ meeting in 2020-21 between NSA Ajit Doval, who had the experience of being posted in our High Commission in Islamabad in the 1980s, and the then ISI chief, Faiz Hameed, who was a Khan favourite. There is little possibility of such a dialogue right now.
The expectation in Pakistan appears to be that given the poor performance of the Sharif government, Khan will win the elections. This will disappoint the Biden administration. Khan’s last major visit abroad before he lost majority in parliament was to Putin’s Russia. Institutions like the IMF and World Bank will look very carefully before they approve large aid dispensation to Pakistan. Saudi Arabia, which is again becoming the largest donor to Pakistan, did not particularly favour the Khan dispensation.
India is accustomed to dealing with government changes in Pakistan. New Delhi has clarified that it seeks ‘normal, neighbourly relations’ with Pakistan, which are ‘free from terror, hostility and violence’. The serious security challenges that Pakistan faces today are from the Pashtun Tehreeq-e-Taliban Pakistan, acting with support from the Taliban in Kabul and the Baloch insurgency. The coming months, leading to the general election in Pakistan, will be a period of doubt and uncertainty for the Pakistan government, and its newly appointed army chief, General Asim Munir, whose approach will hold the key to future relations with India.
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