As late Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was fond of saying, one can choose one’s friends but not one’s neighbours
Pakistan is the fifth most populous nation in the world and one of eight nations with declared nuclear weapons. But in the recent past it barely figures in the political or public debate in India. After the BJP slammed the door shut on any kind of engagement, it is treated as diplomatically irrelevant. Except for the recent news about India seeking a review of the Indus Waters Treaty, its economic meltdown and political tribulations are treated like a viral breakout in some distant land.
Pakistan, however, requires a much closer look as the breakdown of its institutional order can hardly be ignored by India. The recent passing away of Gen. Pervez Musharraf came as a reminder of the abiding role that Pakistan’s Army has played and will continue to do so. As the hackneyed saying goes, Pakistan’s Army controls the nation and not the other way around. Politics in Pakistan has always been an interplay between political parties, the Army and occasionally the judiciary. The dominance of the two main political parties — the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan People’s Party of the Bhutto-Zardari family — was successfully challenged by iconic cricketer Imran Khan in 2018. The Army shepherded his climb to the Prime Mini-ster’s chair. Their alliance lasted until Imran’s mishandling of the economy and anti-American foreign policy tilt put them on a collision course. Thus, today there is a triangular contest looming, with Gen Asim Munir Shah, the new Army chief, yet to reveal his cards. The election to the National Assembly has to be held by October this year.
Imran Khan has been agitating via street protests and rallies since his ouster, caused by the defection of MPs, in April 2022. He alleges that a “foreign hand” was behind his ouster. The finger being pointed is at the United States. He even holds India as an example of strategic independence.
Until he escaped an assassination attempt, causing a leg injury, he was hell-bent on forcing an early election. He connects well with the masses, advocating a neutral foreign policy and a nation run on Islamic principles and nationalism. Whether he can outplay an alliance, formal or tacit, of his two rivals now sharing power, remains to be seen. But to force their hand, he has got the provincial governments of Punjab and Pakhtunkhwa to resign. He is likely to win in the former and if he can repeat his past performance in Punjab, a citadel of Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif, past and present Prime Ministers, he will gain a lot of momentum before the national election.
If Imran Khan is debarred, given that the allies running the Pakistan government have ganged up with the judiciary to knock him out, it will only increase domestic strife. Even the Army sees him as a force of disruption as he has openly questioned the Army’s role in playing puppeteer.
However, Pakistan’s next government will inherit a nation that is facing grave financial and political challenges. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has bailed out Pakistan 23 times in the past. The latest negotiations are in a stalemate, the fund having released only the first tranche of $1.1 billion, of a planned $7 billion loan. The IMF conditions, requiring fuel and income-tax increases, was seen by the government as politically suicidal months before a national election. But a nationwide power blackout forced the government’s hand. Fuel prices have been hiked, but the rest is a work in progress. Pakistan traditionally turns to China and its two Gulf allies — Saudi Arabia and the UAE — to bail it out. The trio do not impose tough financial conditions, but instead settle for economic or strategic concessions. So far, China has refused to take a “haircut” on its loans.
Pakistan owes China $30 billion, out of its total debt of $130 billion. Inflation is at a 50-year high. The supply chains are strained as 5,000 containers are stuck in Karachi port.
Pakistan’s problem is structural. Its economy depends on agriculture, textiles and some manufacturing. Its defence budget weighs down financial management. Its tax-to-GDP ratio is about three per cent, well below India’s 10-11 per cent. India itself lags behind the emerging economies at 21 per cent and the OECD developed nations at 33 per cent. Since its birth, Pakistan has leveraged its geo-political usefulness for monetary doles from friends and allies. Remittances from the Gulf states are another pillar of foreign exchange earnings. But the Covid-19 pandemic combined with the Ukraine war escalated the inflation while squeezing incomes. On top of that, Imran Khan lowered fuel prices hoping, as he reveals now in an interview with Bloomberg, that he wooed Russian President Vladimir Putin to obtain discounted Rus-sian oil. However, Russia, with a bigger market in India, dodged Pakistan. In addition, the floods in 2022 displaced 30 million people and badly affected crops. The World Bank has warned that with climate change, such adverse weather events may occur more frequently.
Finally, Pakistan’s Afghan gambit has gone awry. Its huge investment in ensuring the Taliban’s capture of power in Kabul in August 2021 has proven counter-productive.
They have been incalcitrant and unwilling to abandon their regressive human rights and gender agenda. As a result, the world has blocked development aid and engagement. That is again compelling Afghans to seek asylum in Pakistan, straining even further Pakistani resources. More dangerously the Taliban, instead of curbing the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have actually aided and abetted it. Whereas in the past their area of operation was largely limited to Pakistan’s western tribal belt in Pakhtunkhwa, TTP attacks have now spread across Pakistan. The January 30 suicide bombing caused 59 casualties as it targeted policemen praying in a mosque in Peshawar. The TTP’s gradual penetration into Pakistan’s Punjab heartland seriously threatens the security of the state. In the first 11 months of 2022, an estimated 150 attacks occurred across Pakistan. The policy of nurturing radical Islamist groups to get strategic depth by controlling Afghanistan and waging a proxy war against India has boomeranged badly.
Pakistan’s military elite and politicians need to introspect. Pakistan should stop diverting its limited resources to containing India’s rise as a regional and eventually a global power. That includes scaling back Pakistan’s willingness to act as China’s puppet in South Asia. New Delhi faces a dilemma. Logically it should wait until Pakistan’s national election later this year to see who emerges from the chaos to wield power. The danger is that meanwhile there may be greater chaos going forward, and thus inaction is a bad choice. India can test the ground for creating conditions that will allow political forces less inimical to India to emerge stronger. As late Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was fond of saying, one can choose one’s friends but not one’s neighbours.