Pakistan’s election results and what they mean for relations with India


Pakistan’s election results and what they mean for relations with India

Short Url

Pakistan’s political spectrum has been in the eye of a storm for the past couple of years and the ongoing power-play has arrayed several political and institutional players against each other. The Feb. 8 general election was expected to settle this dust of political uncertainty which made it a widely anticipated affair not only within Pakistan but across the wider neighborhood.

The political situation within Pakistan and election results have been watched with keen interest in the country’s eastern neighbor India. Indian governments and intelligentsia traditionally have associated hawkish trends within Pakistan’s foreign policy with its military. In this regard, Indian punditry has always maintained a soft corner vis-à-vis Pakistan’s civilian elite. 

Within Pakistan’s civilian leaders, Nawaz Sharif remains the sole political figure that has been positively received in India. Sharif’s engagement with the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Bus diplomacy initiative in 1999 projected his image of a peace builder between the two nations. Moreover, Sharif’s peace endeavours were also viewed as an attempt to strengthen civilian supremacy and to limit the Pakistani military’s role in the country’s foreign and national security policy-making. These differences culminated in Sharif’s eventual removal in a coup d’etat in October 1999. 

New Delhi will continue to follow its low-key and securitized approach toward the bilateral relationship. 

- Umar Karim

Similarly, after Sharif was elected prime minister for the third time in 2013, he emphasized that he had been given a mandate of peace with India. During his third premiership Sharif again initiated engagement with India and fostered a close personal relationship with the current Indian Prime Minister Narinder Modi. The personal aspect of this relationship was at display as Modi visited Pakistan to attend the marriage ceremony of Sharif’s granddaughter. This Nawaz-Modi friendship solicited criticism from both Imran Khan, then a leader of opposition in Pakistan as well as from the ranks of India’s main opposition party Congress. 

Meanwhile during this time, Sharif was also accused by nationalist and pro-military circles within Pakistan of adopting a soft corner toward India. It was argued that in addition to Nawaz’s failure to highlight Indian human rights violations in Kashmir, he had also remained rather silent with regards to the arrest of an alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav from Balochistan. 

As Imran Khan arrived on the helm of affairs in 2018, he was widely considered as the military’s handpicked man within India. In this backdrop Pak-India ties had a constant decline during Khan’s premiership and both countries were involved in a kinetic aerial engagement in early 2019 that led to the downing of an Indian Air Force jet and the capture of an Indian Air Force pilot. Khan also took a hard-line stance against Indian revocation of the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and was also fiercely critical of the Hindu nationalist policies of the Modi government. 

Yet these political roles have reversed over time. Today Imran Khan has fallen out with the military and remains in a bitter confrontation with the military leadership and is viewed at least by his support base as a harbinger of civilian supremacy. Nawaz Sharif on the other hand has reconciled with the military and is no longer ready to challenge its involvement in the country’s politics. The election results of 2024 have clearly shown that Khan remains a political force to be reckoned with while Nawaz Sharif’s politics is in decline particularly as he withdrew himself from the prime ministerial race in favor of his younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif.

From an Indian perspective, at one end is a politically weakened Nawaz Sharif and his political heirs who will still be interested in advancing peace with India but lack the traditional public clout and legitimacy and thus are vulnerable to arm twisting by the powers that be. The other relevant political player is Imran Khan, who despite falling out with the country’ military is also increasingly associated with Pakistani nationalism and thus unlikely to adopt a softer approach toward India. As matters stand right now, Pakistan’s military establishment remains the principal stakeholder defining the country’s foreign policy vis-à-vis India and at least in the short to medium term the election results have further affirmed this status quo. Thus, New Delhi will continue to follow its low-key and securitized approach toward the bilateral relationship. 

Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view