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  Opinion   Columnists  04 Apr 2022  K.C. Singh | Chaos or transition? The path ahead for Pakistan

K.C. Singh | Chaos or transition? The path ahead for Pakistan

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh
Published : Apr 5, 2022, 12:58 am IST
Updated : Apr 5, 2022, 12:58 am IST

It had been speculated for months that relations had soured between the Pakistan Army and its favourite politician Imran Khan

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Photo:PTI)
 Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Photo:PTI)

Pakistan’s outgoing Prime Minister Imran Khan has been close to ouster for weeks as he parried a concerted attack by a united Opposition under the rubric Pakistani Democratic Movement (PDM). He had threatened to “play till the last ball”. But instead, he adopted the old Pakistani malaise of ball-tampering. Needing 172 members for a majority in the 342-member National Assembly, even some among his own 155 members of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party appeared ready to bolt.

Rule 37(8) of the National Assembly rules of procedure states that once a no-confidence motion has been permitted, the “Assembly shall not be prorogued until the motion is disposed of or, if leave is granted, the resolution has been voted on”. Instead, the deputy speaker chose to belatedly reject it on the pretext, completely unsubstantiated, of interference by the “foreign hand”. He recommended the dissolution of the House, forcing fresh elections. While the national security threat was brazenly paraded, what was surprising was that it was not India but Islamabad’s traditional friend, the United States, that was allegedly the culprit.

It had been speculated for months that relations had soured between the Pakistan Army and its favourite politician Imran Khan. The Army had hoped that his charisma, resting on his outstanding cricketing career and then charitable activities, would marginalise the two conventional parties that had alternated in power, interspersed with military rule. But a combination of hubris, failing economy, seeking an Opposition-free Pakistan by attacking the main Opposition parties as well as rabble-rousing anti-US rhetoric made the Army nervous. The public began to point fingers at them as the sponsors of the Khan dispensation.

The final straw was Imran Khan’s attempt to position his favourite general to head the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) wing of the military. The extended term of Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa is till November 2022, well before the Prime Minister’s term was due to end in 2023. The Army felt the Prime Minister was trying to tweak the chain of succession in the Army. The Army’s supposed puppet was coming alive and snapping its strings.

In Pakistan, the invisible hand of the Army is forever on the political cradle. The Opposition can sense it when the hand stops rocking it. The PDM thus ratcheted up its eject-Imran game. Rumours began circulating that Imran Khan’s burqa-clad wife-cum-spiritual guru was involved with rampant corruption in the crucial province of Punjab, nearly half of Pakistan in demographic and economic terms. It was under the charge of

Imran’s handpicked chief minister Usman Buzdar. To retain support of his ally PML(Q), Imran Khan agreed to hand over Punjab to its leader Chaudhry Parvez Elahi. Thus, parallel political theatre was underway in Lahore.

In Punjab too, Imran Khan, no longer needing the PML(Q) in Islamabad as fresh elections had been ordered, delayed the change of command. The vote on electing a new chief minister has been deferred to April 6. The Punjab governor was also replaced. The whole issue has been taken to Pakistan’s Supreme Court by the Opposition, alleging constitutional impropriety. A bench has been constituted to urgently hear the matter.

Interestingly, Gen. Bajwa decided to contest Imran Khan’s anti-American diatribe. At an Islamabad forum, he argued that “we have a long and excellent strategic relationship with the US, which remains our largest export market”. But, he added, Pakistan also has a “close strategic relationship with China, demonstrated by our commitment towards the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”. And then, surprisingly he also went on to say: “Sadly, the Russian invasion against Ukraine is very unfortunate”. He explained that despite Russia’s legitimate security concerns, aggression against “a smaller country cannot be condoned”. The last argument obviously had India in mind.

This finally displayed the fracture lines that forced the Pakistan Army to cut its support to Imran Khan. I had argued on television earlier that the Pakistani Army’s discomfort must have grown with Imran beginning his two-day Moscow visit on February 24, the very day that President Vladimir Putin began his invasion (or “special military operation”) in Ukraine. With time it became clear that Imran Khan misread the likely direction of the Ukraine war. He misjudged, like Pakistan’s ally China, that the war was likely to end quickly and with the Russian objective of regime change achieved.

It is worth recalling how Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s President, did an instantaneous mid-air flip after 9/11 when the US President George W. Bush pointedly asked him if Pakistan was “with us or against us”. Armies can make tactical decisions much more quickly than democratically elected leaders. Gen. Bajwa has done likewise. Pakistan needed to be pulled out of the Russia-China corner with the war in Ukraine drifting towards stalemate or the Russians’ failure to achieve most of their principal objectives. Pakistan needs the United States for financial assistance from the IMF as well as to balance relations with China. Even more significantly, they probably think that it may be an opportune time to align with the US when India has been fence-sitting on Ukraine, thus creating questions about its reliability as a potential strategic partner.

What happens next depends on the Pakistan Supreme Court. If the deputy speaker’s ruling is struck down and the no-confidence vote resurrected, then Shahbaz Sharif may well become Prime Minister. It is an outcome Imran Khan would least want. One year of better governance by his successor can sink his ability to use emotional arguments to rabble rouse. On the other hand, the Supreme Court may allow fresh elections to enable the air to be cleared. But in any case, under Pakistan’s constitutional system, an interim Prime Minister would have to be appointed during the election period.

For India, the remarks of Gen. Bajwa about the need for normalisation of relations with India are important. But it is unlikely that any Pakistani Prime Minister would reach out to India until after the elections in his country. India will also have to show flexibility in moving Jammu and Kashmir towards statehood and a popular government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may also not think of engaging Pakistan unless a leader is available who has the Army’s confidence and the courage to contain the jihadi organisations. The Sharifs have traditionally pandered to the Punjab-based militant outfits. However, Gen. Bajwa’s recent statesman-like remarks raise hopes of a new beginning, subject to the usual caveat of the jihadi tail often wagging the dog.

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