Sharif’s policy of reaching out to India was thwarted at every stage by the army, by three successive Punjabi army chiefs (Kayani, Raheel Sharif and Qamar Bajwa), writes Tridivesh Singh Maini for South Asia Monitor
By Tridivesh Singh Maini
The province of Punjab, which comprises over 50% of Pakistan’s population, has long been accused of having hegemonic tendencies toward Pakistan’s non-Punjabi provinces. Pakistan has even been referred to as Punjabistan by scholars like Yunas Samad, to highlight the level of domination of the province[i]. Samad has argued that even though in the initial years after Independence, it was the Urdu speaking migrants known as ‘Mohajirs’ who dominated both the politics and bureaucracy of the country, Punjabi domination gradually increased.
Punjab’s stranglehold over Pakistan’s polity is attributed to the fact that a large chunk of recruitment for the army is from the country’s most populous province. If one were to go by figures, Punjab’s contribution to the army does not seem as disproportionate. Of the 16 army chiefs, seven have been Punjabis (the current Chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa and his predecessors, Raheel Shareef and Ashfaq Qayani have all been Punjabis), Pathans with a lower population have given four army chiefs. The Pakistan army also claims to be working to reduce Punjab’s dominance in the army.
Other provinces (including Sindh, where the Pakistan People’s Party or PPP is dominant) have accused political outfits from Punjab of letting down democracy and, at crucial moments, backing the all powerful Pakistan army.
With Nawaz Sharif’s recent disqualification from Parliament and resignation from the Prime Minister’s post, it remains to be seen whether Punjab (where the PML-N is the key player) will rally behind democratic forces, which began with the lawyer’s movement in 2007, and led to the ouster of General Pervez Musharraf.
Finally, the PML-N also has the opportunity of taking bold steps to reach out to India and sending a clear message to the Pakistan army.
One of the reasons for Punjab’s domination of the Pakistani polity was the alliance between the military and right wing political outfits of Punjab. The only leader of national stature from the Punjab, Nawaz Sharif, who now does not share cordial relations with the military, was brought into the politics by the military dictator, General Zia-Ul-Haq.
Sharif, who served as a minister in the Punjab Government, and later on as Chief Minister of Punjab, was brought in as a counter to the PPP led by Benazir Bhutto. Two factors determined this alliance between Sharif and the army. A number of properties of the Ittefaq Group of Foundries (the Sharif family’s business) had been nationalized during former Pakistan Premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s tenure (1973 to 1977) as a result of which he found common cause with the military. There was a convergence between Sharif’s conservative views, and General Zia-Ul-Haq’s religious leanings. The latter called Sharif his spiritual son.
In 1990, a right-wing coalition, Islamic Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI), backed by the establishment and led by Nawaz Sharif won the election, defeating the PPP Government led by Benazir Bhutto. The IJI was later disbanded, and Sharif’s PML-N dominated the political scene, especially in Punjab. While Sharif may have been initiated into politics by the army, what led to his rise and acceptance especially in Punjab, were his pro-reform credentials as a provincial minister and later as prime minister.
Since his dismissal from office in 1993, Sharif’s relations with the army began to sour.
Among the reasons for Sharif’s tensions with the army have been his desire to improve ties with India, something not acceptable to the Pakistan army.
In 1997, he fought general elections on the plank of better ties with India, unheard of earlier. It has been argued that Sharif deserves credit for moving away from the anti-India narrative in Pakistan’s elections (especially in Punjab province).
During his second tenure, he again made attempts to improve ties with India. This was driven by both his desire to take charge of foreign policy, as well as pragmatism given that he was a businessman himself. The visit of then Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in February 1999 raised hopes of a rapprochement between the two neighbours. The army, however, had other ideas. Within a few weeks of Vajpayee’s visit, aggression between both countries broke out in Kargil.
Four months after the Kargil war, Pakistan witnessed another coup by General Musharraf (a non Punjabi) and Sharif’s own choice. The coup further soured Sharif’s ties with the army, and also strengthened his resolve to work to strengthen democracy. Sharif, who was in exile, signed a Charter of Democracy with his rival and former PM, Benazir Bhutto. The main aim of the charter was to jointly work for removal of dictatorships. He also supported the lawyers’ movement, and this raised hopes of Punjab now having become a supporter of Democracy. While there were numerous differences between Sharif and the PPP, he did nothing to destabilize the PPP government.
After his re- election in 2013, it appeared Sharif would be in command, there would be a redefining of civil-military ties and he would be able to dictate Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Sharif’s policy of reaching out to India was thwarted at every stage by the army, by three successive Punjabi army chiefs (Kayani, Raheel Sharif and Qamar Bajwa). As a result of numerous constraints, Sharif could not take on the army.
First, Sharif was dependent upon them in the fight against terrorism and the Zarb-e-Azb counter terrorism operation raised Raheel Sharif’s popularity. During opposition leader Imran Khan’s (leader of Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf or PTI) protests in 2014, the army had to intervene, with Raheel Sharif as mediator between the civilian government and protestors. The army took advantage of Sharif’s weakness, and slowly but surely sent a clear message, that it would like to have the final say on foreign policy issues pertaining to Afghanistan and India. Former Army Chief, Raheel Sharif’s popularity rocketed and he began to be seen as a messiah.
The Mosseca Fonseca files leak, which revealed that Sharif’s family had offshore companies which possessed properties in London, resulted in further weakening PM Sharif and strengthening the army. In August 2016, Imran Khan’s PTI submitted a petition seeking Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification based on the Mosseca Fonseca files leak.
With Sharif being weakened, rumours of a coup began doing the rounds and in June 2016, the army chief Raheel Sharif met with the cabinet at the General Headquarters (GHQ) Rawalpindi, while Nawaz Sharif was in London for an open heart surgery. The army clarified later that the meeting was to discuss issues pertaining to the CPEC project.
After Sharif’s disqualification it is interesting to note that many analysts and individuals unequivocally criticized his disqualification, terming it a ‘judicial coup,’ and alluding to the hand of the Pakistani establishment. Analysts have pointed out that Pervez Musharraf, despite serious charges, was allowed to escape to London.
After the lawyer’s movement of 2007, it is possible that this could be a game changer for Pakistani politics with the Punjab (considered to be Pro-Army) now backing the PML-N, which is leading the fight for democracy.
It is important for the strengthening of democracy that the province of Punjab needs to dispel the impression that it is not concerned about other provinces. The PML-N needs to take the lead in this.
With Punjab’s stranglehold over Pakistan, more funds have been diverted for Punjab’s developmental projects, leading to resentment in other provinces like Baluchistan. The recent China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been dubbed a Punjab- centric project, and provinces other than Punjab fear it will benefit Punjab the most. The PML-N will need to address this issue seriously. If PML-N is interested in improving ties with India, action against terror groups is necessary.
The PML-N government, especially in Punjab, needs to stop its soft- peddling of terrorist groups which harm the relationship with India, and only strengthen the army. Prominent among them are the Jamaat-ud-Dawaah (JuD) and Jaish e-Mohammad (JEM). While Hafiz Saeed was put under house arrest, a number of prominent ministers have confessed that the state has backed both these organizations and action against such groups was impossible. Saeed’s JuD has also formed its own political outfit.
No action has been taken against Masood Azhar who heads the JEM, and is one of the masterminds of the Pathankot terror attack in 2016. Once Sharif was weakened vis-à-vis the Pakistan army, he took a more aggressive stance on Kashmir, making belligerent statements, even glorifying Burhan Wani.
Punjab will play a role in strengthening democracy in Pakistan. It is important that the key political players exhibit political acumen, administrative efficiency and are not rash in their dealings with the army. It is also important that Punjab takes on terrorist groups which are coming in the way of a better relationship with India.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)