Pakistan is in the news again, this time over looming threats to the Imran Khan government from a surprisingly united Opposition. Coupled with the bankruptcy of the economy, the cozying up to Turkey and Malaysia’s wholly Islamist agenda, the fallout with France over the recent terror and Charlie Hebdo cartoon issue, and its retention on the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list; all these are creating a spectre of uncertainty and despair. The visible symptoms of the Opposition taking Imran Khan’s government to the cleaners are there for all to see. Massive demonstrations under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) were held in Gujranwala and other cities. The PDM is an 11-party conglomeration (not an alliance yet) that has surprisingly seen Bilawal Bhutto’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N), represented physically on the frontlines by his daughter Maryam Nawaz, coming together with Maulana Fazlur Rahman of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam. It includes Balochistan National Party chief Sardar Akhtar Mengal. The objective is to rid Pakistan of the rule of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), that was catapulted to power by the Pakistan Army in 2018. The ultimate intent is, of course, to remove the all-pervasive hand of the Army from Pakistan’s politics. These leaders hope to throw up a civil society movement to achieve that, but Pakistan’s civil society along with its media have been emaciated over the years. In 1968, Ayub Khan could be overthrown partially due to the powerful civil society-led movement in the streets, although it did lead to the imposition of martial law. Ever since the overthrow of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977, the powerful Pakistan Army has ensured the further weakening of civil society and the media to obviate the possibility of popular street revolts. The “Deep State”, which runs Pakistan, despite the front of so-called elected civilian governments, has cleverly used the draw of religion and ideology along with outsourced power to the clergy to keep intact its influence and power. But now things seem to be changing, with the altered circumstances. Can these circumstances make a difference in the internal power game in Pakistan?
We have earlier seen massive turnouts of people in Pakistan, but mostly on religious and ideological calls. Islamabad was blockaded by such calls many times in the past five years. This time it is for a political cause after long, and unity among political parties isn’t something to be easily expected. Things appear much more serious with the two strongest parties PML(N) and PPP having set aside their differences for the moment and agreed upon a compromise leader in Maulana Fazlur Rehman. This unity may not last long due to their regional power bases attempting to upend each other. The PDM proposes to launch a mass protest campaign comprising public gatherings, political rallies, no-confidence motions, en masse resignations from assemblies and, finally, a long march in January that will culminate in a sit-in in Islamabad until their demands are met. Sticking together long enough to see it through will be a major challenge. The Army may have some ways of its own to break this unity; an offer of power to one party may well be on the cards: anything is possible in Pakistan’s fractious politics.
What does favour the Opposition is the abysmal state of the economy and the fact that Imran Khan and the Army have little clue on what to do about it. In addition, the most emotive issue of Kashmir seems to be slipping from the Pakistan government’s hands after the Indian moves of August 5, 2019, which abrogated all special constitutional provisions for J&K. In a recent move, Saudi Arabia released a new banknote and the world map displayed on the obverse side of the note doesn’t show Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir as parts of Pakistan. This coming from a nation that supported Pakistan for many years and was responsible for almost all its economic bailouts clearly shows that its interests do not lie with Pakistan’s awkward internal politics or its inability to pursue American-Saudi interests. Pakistan’s support to Turkey and Malaysia in an apparent bid to cultivate new power equations within the Islamic world is bringing it to grief with Saudi Arabia. Now with further efforts to be more Islamic than the others, by taking on France, Pakistan is actually falling foul with the Western world in general without considering the future of its economic bailouts; as China’s largesse is not unending. China, that invested $60 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, is also hand in glove with the Islamabad regime in exploiting Balochistan and Sindh, which is fuelling discontent among the people of these provinces.
Where the Opposition has a slight advantage is that the Army may have no plan to step in to directly rule a nation with a bankrupt economy. Thus, martial law is a long shot and unlikely. The fairly professional Pakistan Army may appear to be united behind its chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. However, the ambitions that subordinate generals harbour are rarely known. The batches of generals who were overlooked for the top slot due the controversial three-year extension given to Gen. Bajwa by Imran Khan, would yet wish to see his back. With a new government there could be the possibility of a new Army leadership, though Gen. Bajwa will use all his guile to stay on and be the guiding light to a new dispensation if he ditches Imran Khan.
The Pakistan Army under Gen. Bajwa does not seem to be as intelligently energetic as in the past. Its handling of the Sindh police case in the totally unnecessary effort to intimidate Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law, Safdar Awan, has badly let down its image. What also appears true is the inability of the Pakistan Army to push back sufficiently on J&K. It may rest content with what has happened in Ladakh but another year in J&K with the networks under strain, different leaderships wiped out and fresh ones unable to infiltrate, is likely to see much higher advantage to India. It is at such times that India needs its antennae up higher than usual. When an adversary’s military used to internal control at its bidding and perceived success in a proxy war which it intends fighting for long, suddenly finds itself under pressure from different directions with few good options, it is time for caution. A Pakistan in free fall is always unpredictable and thus dangerous.