NEW DELHI, India — His first act as Pakistan's prime minister was to wave an olive branch in India's general direction, but Nawaz Sharif's victory doesn't necessarily position him to take major steps to improve cross-border relations.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) won close to an outright majority in the weekend polls. With 123 out of 272 directly elected assembly seats, he can form the government without the aid of a significant ally.
India hopes that means Sharif will not have to deal with political adversaries as he seeks to re-establish civilian control over state policy.
But despite his near majority, Sharif relies on Islamic fundamentalist parties for support. His rivals contend that one reason his campaign was successful was that the Pakistani Taliban did not target him for attack.
To many, that suggests a tacit agreement that he will not try to stop the country from sinking deeper into the mire.
“It's useful, obviously, to have a majority,” said Rajiv Sikri, a career Indian diplomat and author of “Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India's Foreign Policy.”
“But as we know the civilian government is not the only center of power in Pakistan. There is the army, there is the judiciary, there are the religious parties, and he is quite dependent on them, and of course there is the ever-present factor of the United States.”
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Sharif's early remarks condemning terrorism, in which he said Pakistan would “never again” allow its soil to be used as the launchpad for terrorist attacks on India, are the most exciting sign that he intends to initiate a major shift in policy.
But many question his ability to pull it off — especially when a single ill-timed strike from the Lashkar-e-Taiba or a similar terrorist group can put paid to thousands of hours of peace talks.
“He would probably be wiser if he were to go a little slowly rather than rush anything,” Sikri said. “He doesn't want to frighten the army into any rash step.”
Sharif's history could work in India's favor.
Pakistan's prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and again from 1997 to 1999, Sharif was deposed by a military coup and exiled to Saudi Arabia in a fruitless and probably insincere effort to crack down on corruption.
So, he knows all too well the problems with an elected government that serves at the pleasure of the army chief. And he has a personal as well as a political stake in righting the balance of power.
That will require normalizing India-Pakistan relations, for a start.
The source of the Pakistani military's power is the fear of a conflict with India. And improved trade relations could jumpstart the economy in ways that would simultaneously loosen the grip of the army and (possibly) rob the Islamists of some of their recruits.
But Brahma Chellaney of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research said it's too early to tell whether Sharif will be able to facilitate a better relationship between the two prickly neighbors.
“It is too early to conclude that the recent election marks the advent of a mature, stable Pakistani democracy,” Chellaney wrote by email.
“Sharif faces a major challenge to make the army and the [Inter-services Intelligence agency] (ISI) more accountable. Unless he achieves some tangible progress on that front, he will find it difficult to achieve structural economic or foreign-policy reforms."
And it takes two to tango.
Despite Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's apparent willingness to sacrifice whatever tiny amount of political capital he commands to establish a lasting peace with Pakistan, India itself is due to go to the polls in 2014.
Even if Singh's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government opts, bravely or foolishly, to seek some kind of historic agreement with Islamabad in a last-ditch bid to win votes, Sharif will have to evaluate the wisdom of striking a deal with a lame duck with two broken wings.
For that reason, more than any other, Sharif's engagement with India will probably be limited to fine sounding words and perhaps a spontaneous jaunt across the border to watch a cricket match or visit a shrine. At least until 2014.