Sharif’s loss may strengthen army, has India worried

Nawaz-Sharif

HIGHLIGHTS

  • JIT’s findings have severely weakened Sharif’s position by cutting his avenues of deniability
  • A change of guard in Pakistan could have implications for India in the security sphere
  • De facto governance might pass into the hands of the Pakistan army
  • Many a time in the past, Pakistan has turned the spotlight on India and Kashmir in a crisis situation

ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI: A serious setback to Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif following the disclosure that his daughter and putative heir apparent, Maryam Sharif, had concealed ownership of the family’s offshore assets and companies threaten to create new security complications for India.

A Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the Panama Papers, in its report to the Supreme Court, accused Maryam of forgery. The JIT has charged the ruling family with perjury, having disproportionate income and living beyond their means. It said Sharif failed to satisfactorily answer most of the questions put to him during his appearance before investigators on June 15.

“He was generally evasive and seemed preoccupied during the interview. A major part of his statement was based on hearsay,” the report said, adding that Sharif remained non-committal, speculative and at times non-cooperative while recording his statement. The report further said Sharif tried to “parry most of the questions” by giving indefinite answers or by stating that “he does not remember, ostensibly to conceal facts”.

If the SC decides to implement the report, perhaps by next week, Sharif might either be removed or, at the very least, be rendered completely ineffectual. This could have implications for India in the coming weeks and months, particularly in the security sphere.

India and Pakistan barely have any official interactions anymore. The walk-by greeting between PM Narendra Modi and Sharif in Astana epitomised the state of ties, which does not go beyond pleasantries.

But while the loss of Sharif is unlikely to strike a blow at bilateral ties, a change of regime at this time might mean that there will be new players in Islamabad, too new to matter, leaving the job of governance and foreign policy to the army brass in Rawalpindi.

That would be the most obvious coup-like situation, bringing the army back on the frontline of governance, and it’s unclear whether it would want that. In addition, Sharif ‘s patrons in Saudi Arabia might not look too kindly on that, and it would certainly play badly in the US. Third, for all his problems, Sharif is still popular in Pakistan. An Army-led removal might just help to cement that popularity.

From Ashfaq Kayani to Qamar Bajwa, the army has been loath to removing the civilian government of the day, even though it may be running the country from behind the scenes.

Sharif and his party, PML(N), remain defiant in the face of the opposition’s call for his ouster, with the ruling party vowing to challenge the report.

However, the dominant opinion holds that JIT’s findings have severely weakened Sharif’s position by cutting his avenues of deniability, something which can be a source of worry for India. The outcome of the Sharif investigation and the resultant instability holds out the old red flags -that when Pakistan goes through a crisis, turning the spotlight on India and Kashmir might be a tempting answer.

Pakistan-based terror groups have shown that they can penetrate into J&K fairly easily, the Amarnath attack being the latest. It would be tempting to ratchet up violence in the Kashmir Valley and use it to fend off international pressure to restore a civilian government.

Government circles in New Delhi seem to agree as they brace for what might turn out to be possible post-Sharif scenarios. The general elections are only months away, and if the army wants to preserve the democratic facade, they could allow Sharif to stay on until then. Second, Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz could take over his mantle.
Although Shahbaz would be an easier transition, he might remain severely constrained, and anyway, elections are around the corner, so it is unlikely he would want to pick up the Sharif flak and might prefer to be a fresh face in the elections.

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