Nawaz Sharif's unceremonious exit has once again exposed the fragility of Pakistan's democracy and will severely limit India's options to resolve bilateral issues through civilian diplomacy.
On July 27, just a day before Pakistan's Supreme Court ejected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, India's minister of state for external affairs General VK Singh (retired), while speaking in Parliament, listed four reasons that had set back bilateral ties between India and Pakistan - the Pathankot terror attack, cross-border terrorism, ceasefire violations by Pakistani forces and the death penalty handed down to alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav. Left unsaid was the common thread binding all four reasons - the Pakistan army.
India believes the Pakistan army runs 'the infrastructure of terror' that recruits and trains terrorists to carry out attacks -- as in Pathankot and Uri in 2016 -- and provokes firing on the LoC to facilitate their infiltration. This deadly incendiary cocktail of factors and a Pakistani military court's April 10 death sentence to Jadhav have scorched India-Pakistan ties.
In June, when PM Narendra Modi met Sharif at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana, Kazakhstan-their first meeting since December 2015, the two leaders were warm and cordial, enquired about each other's families, but that was it. No formal meeting was scheduled and the two sat at separate tables.
Sharif's ouster, which many in the Indian establishment have been privately calling a 'judicial execution' and 'soft coup', has reiterated an old axiom: in Pakistan, the military calls the shots and there is little civilian prime ministers can do. Not even Sharif, whose nine years in office make him the country's longestserving PM, even though all his three tenures were cut short.
"In Nawaz Sharif, you at least had a politician who wanted to improve relations with India," says G Parthasarathy, former Indian high commissioner to Islamabad. Commendable as his good intentions were, they were not backed by a real appreciation of the limits of his power.
Sharif, ironically, was pulled out of the heartland of Pakistan's Punjab province and built up by General Zia ul-Haq to take on the charismatic Benazir Bhutto. Instead, he became the military's deadliest foe. And this rivalry saw General Headquarters Rawalpindi scuppering both his celebrated peace outreaches to Indian prime ministers, Vajpayee in Lahore in 1999 and Modi, once again in Lahore, in December 2015. If it was the Northern Light Infantry hiking up the Kargil heights in 1999, it was four heavily armed Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists shinning up a tree over the Pathankot air base on January 2 last year, just a week after PM Modi had attended the wedding of Sharif's granddaughter in Lahore on December 25, 2015.
"Sharif's ouster doesn't have any specific implications for India," says Tilak Devasher, former special secretary, cabinet secretariat. "It is the army that determines Pakistan's India policy, as also its Afghan, security and nuclear policies. So long as this persists, there is little that elected PMs, even those with a heavy mandate from Punjab, can do to make a substantive difference in bilateral ties."
The ministry of external affairs has been silent on the July 28 verdict against Sharif. One official called it "an internal matter of Pakistan". The peace process with Pakistan has been stalled for so long -- nearly 18 months since the Pathankot attack -- that the country has practically dropped off the to-do list in South Block.
Jadhav's death sentence has sparked off fresh acrimony. In April, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj issued a warning over Jadhav's execution. "I would caution the Pakistani government to consider the consequences for our bilateral relationship if they proceed on this matter," she said. An International Court of Justice verdict in May has so far stayed the execution. Last month, Pakistan refused another request for consular access to Jadhav, the 18th over the past year. India has hit back by freezing visas issued to Pakistani nationals, from over 20,000 issued last year, the number is believed to be in single digits so far this year.
Outgoing Pakistan high commissioner to India Abdul Basit hinted at hopes of reviving the bilateral dialogue when he said on July 31 that the national security advisors of the two countries were "in touch". For the moment, however, New Delhi doesn't seem to be interested without some movement on the four core issues it has identified. That is unlikely to happen soon as Pakistan lurches towards another period of domestic political turmoil, culminating perhaps with the June 2018 general elections.
New Delhi is studying its limited options. Nawaz's probable successor, Shahbaz Sharif, is seen as someone who understands the scope for civilian manoeuvre and doesn't enter domains the army considers its preserve, including ties with India. "His pragmatism was demonstrated when, during his 2013 visit, he spoke for economic engagement between the two Punjabs while in Amritsar, but when in Delhi, where he called on then PM Manmohan Singh, talked about the need to progress on issues like Kashmir and water disputes before any economic cooperation," says Devasher.
Pakistan's yawing instability does not presage any difference in policy or the fraught relationship, says Rana Banerji, former special secretary, R&AW. "No newly elected civilian politician will challenge the army's hold on security, neighbourhood or Pakistan's nuclear policies in the near term. Neither would the army encourage any diversionary [moves] to ratchet up tensions at present." Non-state actors would be less predictable, though, and India would need to maintain its heightened vigil, he warns.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the Rajya Sabha MP who introduced and later withdrew a bill asking for Pakistan to be declared a state sponsor of terror in March, says the bill has lost relevance. "The Pakistan army is relatively immune to the prospect of being declared a terrorist state. They will simply run to China for help," he says.
On August 1, Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa praised China effusively at a reception held in the Chinese embassy in Islamabad to mark the PLA's 90th anniversary. "Pakistan is indebted to China for its unflinching support to our perspective at all international forums, be it expansion of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Kashmir issue or Pakistan's full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation," he said. The military stranglehold ensures Pakistan remains what lawyer and Senate member Aitzaz Ahsan called in 1985 a "bonsai democracy": "created by General Zia to be put in the show window for Americans to admire".
Washington has been replaced by Beijing. On July 28, China's foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang termed the Supreme Court verdict Pakistan's "internal matter" with no impact on the ambitious $66 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor. He hoped Pakistan's various parties could "prioritise state and national interests, properly deal with their domestic affairs, maintain unity and stability and keep focusing on economic and social development". Rawalpindi's new benefactor is clearly worried about the safety of its investments for which it will need the military.
"The military has credulously instilled in the Pakistani mind that India is a permanent threat," says Vivek Katju, India's former ambassador to Afghanistan. "As long as that idea remains, the army will continue to control all security and foreign policy and leave subordinate governance to the civilians." This adds an element of instability to the India-Pakistan dynamic and raises the possibility of more terror strikes, inviting retaliation from the Indian army.
During the ongoing impasse with Pakistan, and indeed since the Uri attack that led to last year's September 28 cross-border commando raids, the Indian army has been recalibrating its 'Cold Start' mobilisation plan to give it a greater retaliatory punch. One general calls it "our only strategy against Pakistan". The plan, most recently discussed by army chief General Bipin Rawat with his army commanders at a war strategy meeting in Srinagar on June 1, calls for the army to launch lightning cross-border thrusts in response to a high-intensity terrorist attack. The army has been stocking up on ammunition supplies to wage what it calls a '10-15 day intensive war'.
This is why a few Indian military analysts, such as Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd), suggest letting the Indian army engage directly with the Pakistan army and raise it from the present level of hotlines between the directors general of military operations and DG, Coast Guard, and Pakistan's Maritime Security Agency. "The primary cause of the lack of progress in talks with Pakistan is that these efforts do not seem to have its army's support," he says.
India has rebuffed attempts to allow greater military-to-military ties because that would mean legitimising Pakistan's extra-constitutional authority. But, as Brigadier Kanwal says, there are compelling reasons to try this channel. All agreements between the two armies, from the 2003 informal ceasefire along the LoC to pacts on notifications of major military exercises and not attacking each other's nuclear installations, have been honoured in letter and spirit by both sides. If New Delhi sees the utility of talking to Pakistan that is.