Pakistan: A state in perpetual turmoil
India needs to keep a close watch on political developments in Pakistan as the deeper it moves into an internal crisis, the greater will be its attempt to fuel internal unrest in India, forcing New Delhi to respond militarily
Imran Khan’s promised grand march of three million into Islamabad and staying there until elections were announced ended with a whimper, when he stated even before entering the protest ground, that he was calling it off, while giving the Shehbaz Sharif government six days to announce elections. As per the Pakistan government inputs there were just a few thousands who had turned up and Imran withdrew knowing nothing would be achieved with a small gathering.
Simultaneously, official reports state that the law-and-order costs to the government were to the tune of Pakistani Rs 147 million, an amount the South Asian nation can ill-afford when it is staring at Sri Lanka like financial crisis.
For weeks, Imran Khan had been spewing venom against the neutrals (Pakistan army) and the current government, claiming they were imposed on the country by the US. Cries of “friends of the US are enemies of Pakistan” dominated his rallies, even embarrassing Imran, as he knew his accusations were false and the US support was essential for economic bailout. He had earlier threatened that he would continue with his protests, unless elections dates were declared, and the government resigned.
Flanked by supporters from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while moving towards Islamabad, Imran Khan announced, “No obstacle can stop us, we will cross all the barriers and will reach... Islamabad.” He was backing violence forcing the hands of the government. Bringing in the army to control the situation could have added to internal strife, placing him in an advantage.
There were clashes, protestors arrested, weapons recovered, and leaders taken into protective custody during the move towards Islamabad. Many had expected Imran Khan to continue camping till he achieved his goals.
While calling off the protest, Imran Khan blamed the Shehbaz Sharif government. He stated, “They (govt) are taking the nation towards anarchy” The government, on the contrary, claimed victory. The Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique stated, “(Imran) ran away after spreading chaos.”
The Pakistan Supreme Court permitted the protests and subsequently blocked the Shehbaz Sharif government from filing contempt proceedings against Imran. The intention appeared to be to push for reconciliation.
The Pakistan press mentions that the army backed negotiations to end the protests. The negotiating team included an ex-army officer, a business tycoon and a retired chief justice. Discussions included talks on future election dates. It is unclear whether talks would be successful as vast differences in perceptions exist. Imran needs early elections to exploit his advantage, while the incumbent government needs to delay it for eroding Imran’s vote banks. The army is also convincing Imran to withdraw resignations of his party members from the National Assembly so that the current government functions in an official capacity.
Even within the ruling dispensation there are differences on conduct of elections. For Pakistan to avail IMF loans, it must remove oil and electricity subsidies, part of which has already been done. Further lifting of subsidies would play into the hands of Imran. Hence, many viewed that it was better to hold elections, rather than give advantage to Imran. The army wants the government to bring the economy on rails on priority.
The Pakistan information minister, Maryum Aurangzeb, insisted in a press conference that next elections would be held in August 2023 and there would be no negotiations with Imran Khan. Multiple cases have been filed against leaders of Imran Khan’s PTI, compelling them to seek anticipatory bail. An audio tape, leaked into social media, appears to confirm that Imran Khan sought reconciliation with Zardari, head of the PPP, even prior to the no-trust vote, but that backfired. Currently, battle lines appear to have been drawn, with none willing to pull back.
The Shehbaz government has already overturned Imran’s electoral reforms, removing any advantage Imran possessed. There is nothing he can now do against it, except advise the President to oppose it. The Pak economy is in dire states for which it needs world bank support. For this, the government needs the US backing to limit the lifting of subsidies. It also needs support from the army to prevent an internal uprising, which Imran is pushing for.
Another quiet though important factor is the appointment of the next army chief. If Imran Khan can force elections and win, any time prior to September, he would be in a position to appoint his choice, if not Shehbaz would have that privilege. This appointment can change Pakistan politics for the next few years. This is a major milestone for political power. Imran desires Faiz Hameed as the next chief, while for Shehbaz Sharif, it is anyone but him.
The Pakistan army realized, though rather late, that Imran is no longer a pushover. They manipulated elections and gave him 149 seats in the national assembly from the 27 he held earlier. His ability to challenge his erstwhile backers to regain political power has never happened with a deposed PM before. All have gone home or to prison.
Imran’s charisma and larger than life image has become a threat to the army’s control over the state which it cannot permit. His accusations, fake promises and claims of a conspiracy have been lapped up by a gullible public.
The army, accused of siding against Imran, is losing its positive image. It was viciously trolled on social media after Imran’s ouster. Imran’s rallies have had slogans such as, “Chowkidar (army) chor hai.” At some stage the army will be compelled to act and push Imran out of the picture.
Pakistan internal squabbles have only been paused. They are nowhere near a conclusion. The next few weeks could result in additional protests and violence, provided elections are not announced, pushing Pakistan deeper into an internal uprising alongside its economic mess. It is well known that only two subjects in Pakistan divert public minds and unite the nation- accusing the US of internal interference and threat from India. Imran has grabbed the first, while the army and government could attempt to grab the second.
India needs to watch as the deeper Pakistan moves into an internal morass the greater will be its attempts to fuel internal unrest in India, forcing India to respond militarily. A pending Indian military threat can recreate internal instability in Pakistan, drawing all political parties together, ending civil strife, something the Pakistan army desperately seeks.
*** The writer is a strategic affairs commentator; views expressed are his personal