The ouster of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is not a new event in Pakistan’s history — even in Pakistan’s recent history. But neither is it business as usual for India and the United States It demonstrates the difficulty — perhaps impossibility — of civilian control of Pakistan’s core foreign and security policies, and thus the likelihood of Pakistan’s continued revisionist approach within South Asia. The United States and India should take this opportunity to better coordinate their approaches to Pakistan and to prepare for tough times ahead.
On the morning of July 28, Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified Sharif from serving in the country’s National Assembly because he did not meet the constitutional requirement that members be “honest” in their view. Sharif stepped down immediately after, leaving Pakistan temporarily without a head of government. Although Sharif was subject to allegations of massive corruption, the specific transgression that actually led to his disqualification was fairly minor. Its triviality only highlighted the momentum behind his ouster.
The following day Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), nominated his brother Shahbaz Sharif as his successor, at least until the 2018 elections. The chief minister of Punjab, by far Pakistan’s largest and most economically important province, Shahbaz is a popular figure in his own right and represents continuity within the PML-N. He is not currently a member of the National Assembly, however, which means that a caretaker prime minister will need to be appointed for the brief period until the next by-polls for a safe seat are held.
Replacing one Sharif with his closely aligned brother will not lead to a major transition in Pakistan’s politics in the short term, even though the cabinet is likely to undergo significant upheaval. And as Christopher Clary pointed out, referencing Gallup Pakistan polling data, the PML-N’s polling lead in Punjab is so strong that is likely to pull off another major victory there in next spring’s general election. Despite the jubilant response of opposition parties, this means that Pakistan’s next administration could look much like its current one.
This does not mean that Sharif’s ouster is inconsequential, however. The United States and India should view the crisis the way Pakistan’s politicians will see it: a highly visible test of the limits of civil politics in Pakistan. The nearly universal consensus of Pakistan analysts is that Sharif was pushed from power by the military establishment. And the substance of the judgment disqualifying him is enough to put every politician in Pakistan on notice: the Supreme Court relied on a notoriously vague section of the Constitution that is susceptible to a wide range of readings. Sharif’s fate will make Pakistan’s civilian politicians even less likely to stick their necks out vis-à-vis the military.
For India, the departure of Nawaz Sharif is a setback, and not just because Shahbaz is seen as more friendly to the military and has a longstanding history of tolerating terrorist groups that target India and Pakistan’s minorities. But India will not much mourn Sharif himself, who, despite his outreach to Prime Minister Modi, never had the power to make peace. The true impact of the verdict for India is that it demonstrates the shallowness of Pakistan’s so called democratization process. Furthermore, as a PML-N cabinet minister pointed out just before the verdict, political instability costs more than Pakistan can afford. Events such as this keep Pakistan on the path of being militaristic and poor. Given Pakistan’s existing nuclear deterrent and the low cost of cross-border terrorism, a poorer Pakistan does not make for a more easily controlled neighbor.
Pakistan is a constant presence in the U.S.-India relationship, as seen in the most recent joint statement. That statement gave the impression that Pakistan might be moving from a bone of contention in the relationship to a disruptive force that drives Washington and Delhi closer together (just as Pakistan and China are moving closer together). This trajectory fits President Trump’s focus on counterterrorism and his lack of interest in expanding the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, given the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, the United States does not have the luxury of an all-out campaign to isolate Pakistan. It must continue to work with future military-dominated administrations, and Sharif’s resignation means that its civilian partners will be even less empowered than before.
The United States and India should take advantage of the current crisis to begin bilateral talks about what a cohesive approach to Pakistan would look like. India wants the United States to cut ties but does not seem prepared for what that would mean for the war in Afghanistan; the United States wants greater Indian cooperation on Asian security but does not always consider how the Pakistan conflict drains Indian resources and concentration. And yet the U.S. and Indian vision for Pakistan’s future is similar. Neither country can achieve that vision without the other’s support.
Sarah Watson is an associate fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.