New Delhi: The Lashkar-e-Toiba is embarked on politics. This was long expected but became almost certain after Nawaz Sharief’s shock disqualification from holding public office. The Lashkar-e-Toiba seeks to capture Punjab which is the Sharief family’s political base and Pakistan’s equivalent of Uttar Pradesh. What will be the impact on Pakistan and India of the Lashkar entrance into active politics?

Pakistan is undergoing a churn on several fronts. Although it is a failed state in some respects, it is far from sinking. This, in itself, constitutes one of the wonders of the world. Pakistan’s domestic terrorism is more or less under control. The Pakistan army deserves credit for this. On the other hand, Pakistan’s proxy terrorism against Afghanistan and India is alive and thriving.

The Pakistanis know they cannot get strategic depth in Afghanistan against India any longer. The time for that is over. Still, Pakistan wants a measure of control on Afghan polity, which is impossible till US forces are deployed. Pakistan’s best bet is a Taliban government in Afghanistan. The Taliban have their own reservations about the Pakistan military and intelligence establishments. They will not permit free rein to the ISI and the Pakistan army as earlier. A Taliban government which settles into fraternal relations with Pakistan and is slanted against India and amenable to supporting terrorism against it would more than answer Pakistan’s prayers. Whether that will happen is moot.

With India, Pakistan’s relations are what they are. In the highly unlikely event of a Sino-Indian border war, Pakistan is bound to open a second front against India. That aside, the trajectory of India-Pakistan ties will go further south with Nawaz Sharief removed. It is not quite accepted in India how critical Nawaz Sharief was to stable and peaceful relations with Pakistan. Even if Shahbaz Sharief becomes Prime Minister, which appears farfetched now, India will not greatly benefit, because Shahbaz reflexively keeps to the right side of the Pakistan army, and is not its baiter as Nawaz Sharief was. Even without the entry of the Lashkar into politics, there is little hope for India-Pakistan relations now.

China, as always, remains Pakistan’s best hope. With the United States distancing from Pakistan and placing it in a reward-and-punishment matrix, the dependence of Pakistan on China has commensurately increased. China has plans for Pakistan as it has for most of the world and certainly a considerable part of Asia. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has a major Pakistan leg (the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and its first fruits have arrived.

Even so, Pakistanis fear a Chinese takeover of their economy and presumably the Chinese are alert to the danger. If a narrative of Chinese colonization of Pakistan takes grip, a backlash against China is inevitable. Strategic players as they are, the Chinese will probably know not to kill the hen that lays golden eggs. Be that as it may, China-Pakistan relations are entering a transformative phase. If the Pakistan army has the sense to adopt the role of Kemal Ataturk’s secular military, it can transform Pakistan into a decent economic power with China’s assistance. But that still lies some years ahead.

As much as Pakistan’s external relations are in a flux, so is the internal balance of power fluid. As a coherent institution, the Pakistan army is the weightiest force in the country. Having proved its ability to stamp out domestic terrorism, it is held in high esteem by the public. Success in this realm has also rebuffed criticism of its absolute control of Pakistan’s geopolitics towards India and Afghanistan. With Nawaz Sharief’s exit, this control will harden even more. Where the Pakistan army lacks the confidence is in directly governing the country. Its coups have failed to the extent that elected governments have returned sooner or later but with no more powers than before.

Pakistan’s controlled democracy has registered an almighty blow with the disqualification of Nawaz Sharief. His competitors like Imran Khan are ecstatic with the way cleared but they fail to perceive the sword hanging over their collective heads in the shape of an overreaching judiciary. In the manner that the Pakistan judiciary bludgeoned Nawaz Sharief with a law tinctured with Islamism, it is clear that the worst is not over for Pakistan’s politics.

So how does the Lashkar entry further muddy the pool?

Pakistan’s fundamentalist parties have traditionally enjoyed street dominance but not as much political power. This is why Pakistan has never popularly elected a fundamentalist or terrorist leader as Prime Minister. To be sure, they assisted fundamentalists and even entered into pragmatic political arrangements with terrorist groups, but Z. A. Bhutto, his daughter and Nawaz Sharief were themselves none of that.

For a long time, Nawaz Sharief was the main force in Punjab, Pakistan’s most important province, while Sind, at number two spot, was the fiefdom of the Bhuttos. With Nawaz gone, Punjab faces a political vacuum, which the Lashkar-e-Toiba desires to fill. It all depends on the fight Shahbaz puts up. If Nawaz Sharief restricts his brother to Punjab and keeps a non-Sharief as Prime Minister in the hope of a comeback, it may work against the Sharief family interest. The voters of Punjab take pride in the notion that they have the destiny of Pakistan in their hands. If the Lashkar-e-Toiba can capture that sentiment to a degree, it will become a decisive force in Pakistan. The Pakistan army can live with that. However, it will toll the knell for Pakistan’s professional politicians.

The Lashkar would know that the world of politics is very different from the realm of terrorism. It may or not be able to make the switch. But if it does, it will profoundly transform Pakistan’s politics. The pro-India constituency in Pakistan’s politics will be squeezed out. That significant source of internal friction for the Pakistan army will die a natural death. In consequence, India will encounter a hardened and more monolithic Pakistan than prior.

Will Pakistan’s democratic institutions, such as they are, be able to withstand the Lashkar agenda? It is doubtful. Indeed, without a formal declaration of martial law, the Pakistan army can capture more institutions of the Pakistan state with allies like the Lashkar-e-Toiba in politics. China won’t be happy, but as long as its interests and investments are protected, it can have no reason to complain. On the other hand, unalloyed bleakness will set in for India and conceivably Afghanistan if the Lashkar-e-Toiba makes a smashing debut in Pakistan’s politics.