The Pulse

Could Mamnoon Hussain Help Bring Peace to the Subcontinent?

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The Pulse

Could Mamnoon Hussain Help Bring Peace to the Subcontinent?

Some think Pakistan’s new Indian-born president could help smooth relations.

The majority of Indian newspapers have carried the news of Pakistan’s presidential election results with a heading along the lines of “India-born Mamnoon Hussain elected as Pakistan's 12th president”, emphasizing “India-born” more than the President-elect himself.

Born in the historic city of Agra, Hussain migrated to Pakistan during the partition in 1947. His association with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N), and his unwavering loyalty to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif brought him to the highest office in his adopted country.

In 1999 another Indian-born leader, Pervez Musharraf, also became the president of Pakistan.

The differences between these two lie in details and timing.

Musharraf became president after usurping power from the elected government of Nawaz Sharif in 1998. He ruled the country for almost a decade with full authority, until a popular rebellion toppled his government and restored democracy in the Islamic Republic.

By contrast, the latest entrant to the presidential palace in Islamabad is a figurehead. Media reports have called his election a “foregone conclusion” following the withdrawal of the nominee from the main opposition, the Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP), and the support extended to him from the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). But the main factor in his unassailable victory was the strong position of the PML(N) in different provinces and in the national parliament.

The Times of India writes “Pakistan so far had 11 presidents, out of which five were military generals. Four of them seized powers through coups, whereas first president Major Sikandar Mirza was elected in 1956 after the first constitution was adopted.”

The fear of a ceremonial president turning rogue is less intense now that the constitution has been amended and democracy is more rooted in the Islamic Republic. Article 58-2(b) of the constitution, added by former dictator Zia Ul-Haq, authorized a president to dismiss a prime minister and dissolve the parliament.

Dwelling on the history of this draconian article, noted Pakistani analyst Ejaz Haider writes in The Economic Times: “Zia himself sacked his handpicked prime minister, Mohammad Khan Junejo, in 1988. After Zia was killed in an air crash less than three months later, his successor, Ghulam Ishaq Khan sent home two prime ministers in just five years before he was also asked to resign by the then army chief General Waheed Kakar in what is widely considered by most in Pakistan as a soft coup.”

Haider continues: “In came the PPP and the late Benazir Bhutto got her party loyalist Farooq Leghari elected president. In a deeply ironic twist of politics, Leghari sent home her second government. The changing balance of power between the president and the prime minister came to be known as ‘58-2(b) or not to be’ — until Nawaz Sharif returned to power.”

Sharif later amended the constitution in the late-1990s.

An editorial published in The Express Tribune advises the president against adventurism and notes, “Mr. Hussain, who has made a few comments regarding policy, will need to realize this and help take his office towards a point where it can stand above day-to-day matters, and act in a manner that allows our state to gain the dignity and status that it so badly needs in the international community.”

If there is an expectation that the president-elect will strengthen the democratic process in Pakistan there is also some hope that his India connection will help in the normalization of relations between the two South Asian republics.

Last week Islamabad proposed dates for talks with New Delhi on long-pending issues. It also expects Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to pay a visit to Pakistan.

Unless the Islamic Republic addresses India’s concerns over "infrastructure for anti-Indian activities in Pakistan" any progress on talks would not yield a result, according to a Reuters report. The report goes on say that New Delhi also wants its neighbor “to publicly recognize India's role in Afghanistan and deliver on its promise to give it most favored nation trading status, a move that would mean lifting a ban on certain Indian goods.”

Some South Asia experts, including Stephen P. Cohen, find the stance of India rigid and feel that the resistance of the world’s largest democracy is getting in the way of normalizing relations with Pakistan.

The Indian Express quoted Cohen as saying, "Nawaz Sharif may have his heart in the right place, but there may be more resistance in India than he expects; this would be tragic, but perhaps likely."

In a recent book titled What's Wrong With Pakistan, author Babar Ayaz opines that “India and developed world would have to help by being more accommodating and understanding, so that the people of Pakistan can reinvent their country.”

In an interview with the BBC Urdu service, president-elect Hussain expresses his desire to help normalize Pakistan’s relationship with the country of his birth. He still nurtures fond memories of his childhood spent in Agra, near the iconic Taj Mahal.

For New Delhi this is a wonderful opportunity to stabilize the relationship and work towards lasting peace in the subcontinent. The growing peace constituency in Pakistan needs a positive signal from India.

The Indian media, which has played a largely negative role in stoking anti-Pakistan feelings, is crucial at this time. India’s rise at the international level hinges greatly on how well it manages its own neighborhood.