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15 August 2022, Gateway House

The convulsions in Pakistan

The genesis of Pakistan’s current political and economic problems lies with the pre-1947 Pakistan movement. But, its immediate problems stem from the political engineering done by the Pakistani army to install a hybrid regime led by Imran Khan who, they realised much later, was unable to deliver either on the economy or on governance.

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As Pakistan approaches the 75th year of its creation, it finds itself as a deeply polarized country with political instability and an economy in steep decline. The genesis of this pitiable situation harks back to the pre-1947 Pakistan Movement, but its immediate problems stem from one major reason: the political engineering done by the Pakistan army to install a hybrid regime led by Imran Khan who, they realised much later, was unable to deliver either on the economy or on governance.

For most of the three and a half years that he was in power, Imran Khan was comfortably ensconced being on the ‘same page’ as the army, with the combined Opposition in disarray. Then came a remarkable about turn based on two reasons: first, the army (selectors) started facing criticism for installing an incompetent Khan in power and sustaining his inept government. Second, Khan crossed the army’s red lines by trying to meddle in its postings by resisting the transfer of the director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed as Corps Commander, Peshawar. This was the last straw for the army that became ’neutral’ and cut Khan loose politically. Without the army’s political management, Khan lost his slender majority in the National Assembly. Sensing an opportunity, the Opposition united and moved a successful no-confidence motion.

For the first time in recent memory, a Pakistan prime minister was democratically removed and his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, democratically elected.

In the run-up to being sent home, Khan resorted to several risky, dubious and unconstitutional moves to stay in power. Since his ego could not accept even a democratic defeat, it appeared that he was willing for the entire system to be wound down rather than allow a rival to head the government. His key gambit was the allegation that because he followed an independent foreign policy, the U.S. conspired to remove him from office. As proof, he tried to convert a routine diplomatic cable sent by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington D.C. to his ministry in Islamabad into a US threat, warning of dire consequences. The army, however, refuted the conspiracy theory, demolishing the central plank of Khan’s narrative.[1]

Despite this, Khan persisted with the American conspiracy thesis and boosted it with religious symbolism and rhetoric during rallies held in cities all over Pakistan, an attempt to mobilise people to force early elections. Conspiracy theories involving the US have great salience in Pakistan and Khan was able to tap into this reservoir of anti-Americanism to galvanize his support base and brand the successor government as an ‘imported’ and traitorous one. The social media cell of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) went into overdrive, trying to create a wedge between the army and the people, and between army chief Gen Bajwa and the army.

While Khan undoubtedly remains popular, his conceit, inflated ego and branding of those opposed to him as traitors, does not make for democratic politics. As an editorial in Dawn on April 4 put it: “Mr Khan has dealt a fatal blow to constitutionalism and given rise to the strongest concerns yet that he may not be suited to hold public office within a democratic order.”[2]

In the run-up to the 2018 elections, Imran had hypnotized the urban middle class and the youth with slogans of accountability, tabdeeli (change) and of a naya (new) Pakistan that would be corruption-free. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan has found Imran Khan and his PTI guilty of concealing prohibited funds, lying and violating the constitution, hiding 13 accounts and receiving funds from non-Pakistanis. This is a huge blow to Khan who could well be disqualified from contesting elections in the future. How this plays out will be critical in determining his political future.

The new government in Pakistan headed by Shehbaz Sharif faces major challenges, especially handling of the economy with a huge debt burden, alarming inflation and a collapsing rupee. The government has had to take tough remedial measures, especially to massively increase fuel prices in order to bring the $6 billion IMF Extended Fund Facility (EFF) programme back on track. At the time of writing, a ‘staff level’ agreement with the IMF has been reached and funds could be released soon. The political cost for the government of these unpopular measures, however, were obvious when Khan’s PTI won 15 out of 20 seats in the Punjab provincial assembly elections held in July even as it lost the provincial government in the crucial Punjab province.

As if all this was not enough, the new government faces the challenge of dealing with a deeply polarized and divided Pakistan, even more than ever before. This is the lasting legacy of the confrontational politics and vicious rhetoric that Imran Khan indulged in for the last four years, labelling those opposed to him as traitors.

For India, there is unlikely to be any change in the substance of the relationship with Pakistan. However, his departure should help restore a civilized discourse in bilateral diplomatic exchanges simply because Imran Khan had injected a great deal of personal animosity and rancor against Prime Minister Modi that made resumption of a political dialogue impossible.

Tilak Devasher is an author and Member, National Security Advisory Board. Views are personal.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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