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Pakistan’s Elections and Peace in South Asia

 
Friday, 24 May 2013 15:23
 
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by Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra (EPOS)
EPOS Insights

 

Early this month the election of Nawaz Sharif’s political party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) as the majority party to rule Pakistan has created fresh hope among the stakeholders of peace that coming months will be cordial and beneficial not only between Pakistan and India, but also between these countries and other countries of South Asia. Sharif, soon to be Prime Minister of Pakistan, invited his Indian counterpart to be a guest at his oath taking ceremony.

Peace is a scarce commodity in South Asia. During electoral campaigns Sharif remained cautious about his Indian pronouncements and told the voters that if elected to power he will promote friendly relations with India. Another positive thing that could be visible during this campaign was less reference to the issue of Kashmir as a vote catcher, rather there was more focus on domestic issues such as electricity, poor governance, corruption, etc. Despite linked to each other with thousands of years of enduring culture and history, the countries fought more against each other than developing friendly relations.

South Asia which witnessed the rise of great stalwarts of peace like Mahatma Gandhi or witnessed the fusion of fine threads of religions and evolution of Sufi songs that endeared people across religious divides was characterized more as an unstable violent region than for any of its achievements. Wars too have proved costly for these countries. Whether it is the war between India and Pakistan, or instability in Afghanistan, or ethnic strife in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, huge amounts of natural resources have been diverted for war making than for development and poverty eradication. The biggest country in the region India has, despite economic growth, huge population under below poverty line and so is the case with other countries of the region.

India and Pakistan remain at loggerheads over territorial disputes and other contentious issues. Their rivalry has affected other aspects of regional development. For instance, the regional grouping South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has been subject to the rivalry between these two nations. Hence, despite its formation in 1980s, the organization still remains in a poor shape. In that sense, India-Pakistan relations impact the regional environment to a large extent. The change of political establishment in Pakistan will likely prove propitious for regional, as well as bilateral, relations in a framework of peace and development.

For Pakistan the recent developments indicate that the democratic transition in the country is for the good. The outgoing Zardari administration will retain a place in Pakistani history as the first democratically elected government to complete its five year term. Pakistan most of its history has been ruled by army generals and democracy has always been a casualty in the move of powerful army to control the country and its resources. The rise of radicalism and anti-India sentiments seems to have favored such as climate of governance. The Zardari government may be applauded for completing the five year term but the applause does not go further as the government was plagued by corruption, poor governance, and an unpleasant power tussle between the judiciary and the executive.

Sharif holds a promise for a better future for Pakistan, and also for India-Pakistan relations and for South Asia. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, even before the formal announcement of election results, congratulated Sharif. The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir (the part that is with India), Omar Abdullah stated that "It is right that Sharif has won elections, which is a good development.

Sharif has earlier also proved that he wants good relations with our country and he wants that Kashmir problem to be resolved through dialogue". The chief minister may prove right. In the last year of his office in 1999, when he was removed from power by a coup orchestrated by the army chief, Sharif along with his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had initiated peace measures between the two countries. Vajpayee with an Indian delegation was on the board the famed Delhi-Lahore bus in February 1999 to meet Sharif in Lahore and sign agreements to promote bilateral relations. While Sharif was deliberating peace with his Indian counterpart, his Army Chief Musharraf was planning the war against India that took place in May that year. The war turned the clock of dialogue reverse and spoiled peace initiatives.

As Sharif is poised to become the leader of Pakistan after a gap of 13 years, it appears that the peace will be on track. It is not that the relations are completely in a bad shape, but past few months have proved to be dangerously slow particularly after the border skirmishes in January this year and the death of one prisoner in a Pakistani jail recently. The past decade was relatively peaceful. The Mumbai attack of 2008 that originated from Pakistan dampened the relations, though it did not lead to any catastrophic war between the two nuclear-weapon powered nations. Sharif’s pronouncements during and aftermath the elections indicate that he will promote friendly relations between the two countries. As he comes from a business background, he will likely give more focus to trade and commerce between the two countries than on merely focusing on contentious issues like Kashmir.

One may wish good luck to Sharif as the new decision maker of Pakistan. It will depend how far he becomes successful in bringing the army on board while making decisions. The army still remains most powerful factor in Pakistani politics. Second, how far he controls the radical forces within his country will determine the contours of his peace initiatives. Sharif during electoral campaigns had emphasized on dialogue with the Taliban. As strategically located country Pakistan will also play a key role in stability and development in Afghanistan and other neighboring countries like countries of Central Asia. The Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai during his India visit early this week asked Indian support for stability and development in his country. India and Pakistan together can play an effective role in this regard. The coming months will reveal more the mind of Sharif and his policies.

*Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a fellow at the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy, University of Massachusetts Boston.

Last modified on Friday, 24 May 2013 15:41
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