Asif Ali Zardari becomes President of Pakistan, while Shehbaz Sharif takes over as PM. For India, what does it mean?

Shehbaz Sharif has returned as the Prime Minister and Asif Ali Zardari as the President of Pakistan after the two old-guard parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), reached a power-sharing agreement.

The announcement comes after a nearly two-week-long political deadlock in the country following the February 8 elections, which resulted in a hung assembly with no party securing the 133 seats mandated for a simple majority out of 265 contested seats in the Pakistan National Assembly.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz won 79 seats while the Pakistan Peoples Party came third with 54 seats. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P) has also agreed to support the coalition with their 17 seats.

The new government in Pakistan is faced with challenges in handling the country’s economic crisis and security issues. In 2023, Pakistan averted a default when the International Monetary Fund provided a $3 billion short-term loan. Then there are also terrorism-related challenges that have resurfaced after the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2021.

What it means for India

India is also headed to general elections in April-May, and surveys have predicted a historic third term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government.

Keeping a close eye on Pakistan, New Delhi considers the new military-backed civilian government as weak and unstable, especially amid allegations of rigging in the February 8 polls. The new government, on expected lines, has ensured that jailed former PM Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) remains out of power despite candidates backed by it dominating the election results with 93 seats in the country’s contentious election.

According to Ajay Bisaria, former high commissioner to Pakistan, New Delhi would likely keep quiet on the allegations of vote rigging while the key issue will remain whether or not the new dispensation can address the issue of cross-border terrorism.

“India has no illusions that the army in Pakistan would determine policy towards India,” Bisaria, who served as High Commissioner of India to Pakistan from December 2017 to February 2020, was quoted as saying in DW.

Modi-Sharif rapport
Sharif, 72, is the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former PM of Pakistan. Unlike Imran Khan, Nawaz has been seeking rapprochement with India in the recent past and has made many conciliatory statements, especially after his return from exile in the run-up to polls.

“InshaAllah (God willing), we will have better relations with our neighbours,” Nawaz, 74, said after the February 8 elections. Yet, his party’s manifesto mentioned a commitment to pursue peace with India only if New Delhi reversed its August 2019 decision to abrogate Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

PM Modi’s camaraderie with Nawaz is well known. In 2020, PM Modi wrote a condolence letter to Nawaz Sharif on the death of his mother Begum Shamim Akhtar. In the letter, PM Modi recalled his interaction with her when he visited Sharif’s home in Raiwind in 2015.

“I am deeply saddened to learn about the demise of your mother Begum Shamim Akhtar on November 22 in London. My heartfelt condolences are with you in this hour of intense grief,” PM Modi wrote.

Modi had in December 2015 landed in Lahore for a meeting with the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the first visit to Pakistan by an Indian premier in over a decade. Days after Modi’s Pakistan visit, at least seven IAF personnel were killed when four JeM terrorists sneaked into the Pathankot Air Force Station on January 2, 2016.

Experts said it won’t be easy for Shehbaz Sharif-led coilition government to have a cordial relationship with India.

“Nawaz Sharif, and his brother’s government may want keep friendly ties with India. But this won’t be easy since the Zardari’s are also stakeholders in the alliance government,” Ambassador (Retd) Anil Trigunayat told LiveMint.

Military dominance
The Pakistan Army’s authority over the political leadership is undisputed. Yet, the elections this time were historically significant in terms of how a popular civilian leader Imran Khan challenged the military’s dominance.

“Army’s attitude is what will matter. If at it wants to have cordial relationship with India or continues to be confrontational as it has been before keeping in mind domestic dividends,” said Ambassador Triguniyat, who is also distinguished fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation.

“This time two things have changed. One, people of Pakistan have spoken against the Army which was reflected in the results. And, the second important thing is that China is not doing well on economic front,” he said adding that nothing substantial will happen until the middle of this year, when India’s elections are over.

Like in the past, New Delhi will closely monitor activities in Pakistan after government formation, especially given the army’s backing of the Sharifs.

“India has dealt with Pakistan’s generals who took charge of the country before,” geopolitical expert C Raja Mohan wrote recently in the Indian Express.

But, Mohan added, General (Asim) Munir’s quest for greater control may not be the movie we have seen before. “To be sure, the dominant assumption in Delhi is that nothing ever changes in Pakistan. And that Pakistan’s generals will muddle along as they retain hold over Pakistan. Munir, however, is taking control amid the growing prospect that the old order in Pakistan is becoming unsustainable,” he said.