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How is India looking at Pakistan's political crisis?

Shakeel Sobhan in New Delhi | Shamil Shams
May 16, 2023

India needs political stability in Pakistan for any kind of dialogue with its regional archrival. With Pakistan deeply divided, India has no strong political partner for talks in Islamabad.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks through a camera with a large lens
Analysts say PM Modi's domestic policies go against any political or diplomatic concessions to PakistanImage: PIB/AFP

Earlier this month, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari visited India to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference. Although he briefly met with his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar, on the meeting's sidelines, the two diplomats did not engage in any formal discussion and they never held a meeting.

Some experts describe it as a "missed opportunity" for Pakistan to improve relations with India, but others claim that Pakistan's Bhutto Zardari could not have done much more, even if he wanted to.

"Bhutto Zardari came to India with his hands tied behind his back, in terms of diplomatic space for any initiatives on the bilateral front. Domestic politics in Pakistan will not allow him to reach out in any substantive way," Ajay Bisaria, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, told DW.

What is happening in Pakistan?

The political crisis in Pakistan has only worsened in the days following the SCO summit. On May 9, paramilitary forces arrested former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad, triggering violent unrest across the country. Several people were killed as Khan's supporters took to the streets to protest against the current government and Pakistan's military.

Khan was eventually released by the country's top court. Pakistan is still reeling from the aftermath.

The army has condemned the violence and vowed to try the perpetrators in military courts. If this happens, Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party could face a political ban.

The Muslim-majority country has been in a state of political turmoil since Khan was removed by the parliament in a no-confidence vote last April. The incumbent Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government, headed by Prime Minster Shehbaz Sharif, is grappling with a worsening economic crisis and is struggling to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund to avoid a possible default.

No strong player in Pakistan right now

Across the border, the Indian government is watching the events unfold in Pakistan, seemingly without much trepidation.

"The current crisis in Pakistan, in my view, reaffirms the policy direction put in place by the Indian government — a studied aloofness, or low-grade hostility," Amit Julka, an assistant professor of International Relations at Ashoka University in New Delhi, told DW.

And yet, the crisis leaves New Delhi without a partner, a credible stakeholder within the Pakistani government.

"The civilian government [in Pakistan] has lost its legitimacy due to economic problems, and the military stands discredited and is quite confused about its own direction," Julka said.

Stuti Bhatnagar, a research fellow at the Australian National University, said that while the domestic crises in Pakistan are alarming, it is unlikely that they would have an impact on the ties between India and Pakistan.

She pointed out that the relationship between the two neighboring countries has been steadily declining for the past few years, "with few opportunities for dialogue and the lack of any political consensus on the resumption of dialogue, particularly in India."

Pakistanis struggle to fuel everyday life

Longstanding disputes

The ties between the two South Asian rivals have been troubled ever since both countries gained independence from British rule in 1947, and a 2019 terror attack on Indian troops in Kashmir increased tensions even further. Both nations claim the disputed Kashmir region in its entirety, but each rule only parts of it.

New Delhi, which accuses Islamabad of backing Islamists and separatists in India-administered Kashmir, blamed the 2019 attack on Pakistan.

In the same year, New Delhi revoked the special constitutional status enjoyed by the part of Kashmir it controls, further angering Islamabad.

Despite these thorny issues, analysts say the Pakistani foreign minister's decision to visit India in May was a positive development. Bhutto Zardari himself was cautious about the implications of his trip, as his political rival Khan's party had already accused him of compromising on the "Kashmir cause."

"Given the situation in Pakistan, expectations from Bhutto Zardari's India visit were grossly misplaced, and this was amply demonstrated by the events that followed," Sharat Sabharwal, a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, told DW.

India-Pakistan conflict: A ticking time bomb

India's security concerns

New Delhi continues to accuse Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism in the region, a claim Islamabad vehemently denies.

While Bhutto Zardari brought up the security situation in Kashmir in conversation with Indian media during his Goa visit, his Indian colleague Jaishankar repeated the claim.

Bhatnagar said Narendra Modi's policies "go against any political or diplomatic concessions to Pakistan."

"The instability in Pakistan feeds further into this discourse and heightens India's security concerns," she said.

"The current political and economic turmoil in Pakistan will give impetus to hardliners in India who continue to blame political instability in Pakistan and the overwhelmingly dominant role of the Pakistan military in abetting acts of terrorism against India," she added.

Indian diplomat Sabharwal believes India will need to wait for things settle down in Pakistan and go through its own election cycle in 2024 before real progress can be made.

"Thereafter, there may be opportunities to stabilize the relationship by restoring diplomatic relations to the high commissioner level and resuming trade."

Analyst Julka says that India and Pakistan need a new regional framework and a political vision that goes beyond narrow nationalism to ameliorate ties.

However, due to the ruling Hindu nationalist party's use of foreign policy for domestic legitimacy, India is likely to continue its aloof posturing to project strength and stability against its unstable neighbor, he added.

Imran Khan: Pakistan's most polarizing politician

Edited by: Darko Janjevic