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#4386, 14 April 2014

Dateline Islamabad

Elections in India and Afghanistan: Perspective from Pakistan
Salma Malik
Assistant professor, Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University

A recent trip to New Delhi brought forth some interesting trends and comparisons. Gripped with election fever, Indian voters appeared to be facing the same dilemma their Pakistani counterparts did a year ago. Reminiscent of the May 2013 Pakistan elections, like Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) the incumbent Congress-led government in New Delhi performed poorly, appeared fractionalised, weak and unable to bring reforms, and most seriously charged with being responsible for inflation.

This has left the voters with an odd choice of opting not so much for the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) but Narendra Modi, who is controversial owing to his alleged role in the Gujarat pogrom. However, the Pakistani voters did not consider the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) very problematic. Finally, both countries witnessed the rise of a third alternative – in the form of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and the Aam Admi Party (AAP) – that skeptics on both sides consider nothing more than a one-time fad and not a sustainable actor.

Yet, the rise and overnight successes of these Imran Khan and Arvind Kejriwal’s parties in Pakistan and India has primarily come about owing to the people’s rejection of age old problems of non-performance, corruption, poor governance, and largely domestic concerns. The PTI is already facing a litmus test in the Khyber Paktunkhwa province, which, given its highly complicated security profile and troubles in and across the border with Afghanistan, is not a bed of roses. The PTI’s woes are compounded further by immature, populist and jingoistic politicking by its top brass – often resulting in detracting its gains on the micro-governance level. 

The voters’ sentiments varied from place to place. In the green pastoral fields of Punjab, BJP translated to better subsidies and micro-economic credits, whereas for many Muslims and other minority groups, the possibility of Narendra Modi becoming the future Indian prime minister could hold serious consequences. Of course, Pakistan’s potential reaction to such an outcome was repeatedly asked. 

First, it is likely that Narendra Modi’s election rhetoric may not translate into reality; but if one takes the his fiery speeches seriously, it only spells further trouble and worsening of relations between the two neighbours; and that certainly does not bode well for the already stalemated peace process. Secondly, on an optimistic note, the only good news associated with Modi is his economic and investment friendly profile, which in itself is a strong counter-narrative to conflict and discord. It goes without saying that that the BJP led by Narendra Modi will be unable to pull off a Lahore 2.0 for only a personality like Atal Bihari Vajpayee could do so. Additionally, policy posturing, military investment, treatment of minority groups and past history, will play a substantial role in defining the future terms of engagement between India and Pakistan. 

Though difficult to prioritise, for Pakistan, besides India, developments in Afghanistan hold great significance. The presidential elections in Afghanistan took place at a critical juncture, with the deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops inching closer, and the fear of a Taliban resurgence in an event of hiccups in democratic transition is a something that worries both Islamabad and Kabul. Though the withdrawal scheme somewhat set in motion even prior to the re-election of US president Barack Obama in November 2012, solutions to many issues remained ambiguous. First, the much touted “Afghan owned and Afghan led,” process could not really translate into reality, making most of the “nation-building” exercise transient. More importantly, nation-building can never be a time-bound case study to be applied effectively on test cases. Secondly, in order to legitimise and secure the continued presence of US security forces post the drawdown, a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) was proposed by Washington, that, after much foot-dragging by the US’s very own poster boy Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has been left to his successor to sign and implement. This deliberate delay in the ratification of the BSA has caused a loss of critical time for the US to set its post-transition strategy in motion, as well as adding to the climate of uncertainty and insecurity. Pakistan has been highly supportive of the successful democratic process and wishes to have improved relations with the new leadership in Kabul to build regional peace and stability. 

Contrary to the generally held opinion that Pakistan wants a turbulent Afghanistan to ensure its grip on the country and fulfill the lofty ideals of strategic depth, a stable and secure neighbourhood is the only desired goal in the country. Taliban variants on both sides of the border are often operate independently, but also have strong intra-group linkages; and the Pakistani Taliban, despite their autonomous status, consider Mullah Omar as their main leader. Both groups have a strong network of support systems that is actively used on need basis. At the governmental level, during the elections, security forces on both sides very effectively sealed the border, a practice that should be implemented more often, and especially when military operations are underfoot. What direction will the Kabul-Islamabad relationship head towards, post elections? The future of the bilateral depends on the leadership in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

At present, the most important issue is that of stability and security of the region – a mutually desired goal. Elections provide a chance for a fresh beginning. ‘Stakeholders’, interest groups and spoilers remain the same, but strong governments interested in sustainable peace and growth of their respective countries can go a long way in realising this dream, and join hands in defeating terrorism.

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