This issue brief discusses the implications of elections to 272 directly elected seats of Pakistan’s National Assembly earlier this month. The elections resulted in a huge vote of confidence in Nawaz Sharif’s leadership. Leading a single-party government, he will not be hostage to pressures of coalition partners, but his political strength will make the Pakistan army wary of his moves. With deep ethnic, linguistic and economic diversity among the provinces and with the challenge of terrorism confronting Pakistan, Sharif will need to appeal beyond his urban Punjabi base.
Serious doubts remain that Sharif can readily resolve Pakistan’s massive and destabilising problems. His agenda is already challenging, with a plunging economy and critical internal security situation. There will also be clear limits to his powers, especially on Kashmir, jehadi groups, Afghanistan and the nuclear weapons which will remain with the army.
Sharif’s statements about pursuing peace with India have been received enthusiastically in India but it should neither seek a thorough makeover of bilateral relations through dramatic gestures nor disarm its ability to target developments from Pakistan that threaten India’s vital interests. India should nevertheless be a willing partner on any forward movement on bilateral trade and humanitarian issues. Indian security agencies must also guard against a cross-border terrorist attack by Pakistani jihadi groups, at the behest of the establishment that feels threatened by any notion of peace between India and Pakistan. A careful mix of patience and caution, with an eye on unfolding events, should be the basis of India’s immediate Pakistan strategy.