Pak Army shows its muscle again 

The all-powerful army in Pakistan has reinstalled a pliant government, which must play ball to survive

Pakistan elections
Pakistan elections

Ashis Ray

For some time now, Pakistan’s principal political parties have been inclined to reach an understanding with India. An easier visa regime, activating a January 2014 MFN (Most Favoured Nation) trade agreement, restoring diplomatic representation to the level of high commissioner are low-hanging fruit, and yet progress is not simple because the country’s omnipotent army insists on an equitable quid pro quo.

The most enduring sticking point, of course, is the territorial dispute over the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, which acceded to India in October 1947, but is occupied to the extent of roughly 35 per cent by Pakistan.

Bilateral relations became pricklier in 2019, when the BJP government withdrew J&K’s special status and relative autonomy under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. There is a sense of resignation in Pakistan that this move is irreversible, especially after the Indian Supreme Court upheld the step, but to bite the bullet in a face-saving manner is not easy for the Pakistan establishment.

A decade of Narendra Modi has been a triumph for Pakistani advocates of India’s Partition. A secular India, particularly under Jawaharlal Nehru, was most discomfiting for this lot. Hard as hardliners in Pakistan may have tried to brand India a Hindu country and the Congress a Hindu party, there were few takers in the international community for this idea; a sizeable section of Pakistanis too rejected it.

Today, these hardliners in Pakistan feel vindicated. The Pakistani establishment nodded in approval when Modi seized power in 2014. They saw in him a man anxious to outdo the Congress, which came close to a breakthrough on Kashmir under prime minister Manmohan Singh.

But as Modi’s promise of an economic miracle unravelled, he predictably fell back on Pakistan bashing. And his persecution of Indian Muslims has put the very elements in Pakistan who welcomed his ascent in a quandary.

So, the signal from Islamabad is that while Pakistan wants to normalise relations with India — given especially its acute economic crisis — it does not see any realistic prospect, certainly not until after the Indian election.

The Pakistan military are past masters at delivering election results to their liking. Just as much as it handpicked Imran Khan as prime minister in 2018, it has produced a composition of its preference this time. A senior general in the Pakistan Army confided within six months of Khan being installed that his choice was a blunder.

As cricket captain of Pakistan, he was authoritarian in a culture permitting an Oxbridge man to trample over working class teammates. Pakistan won the 1992 World Cup under Imran, which made him a big national hero, but his cricketing acumen did not convert into political smarts, and he naïvely kept believing that the government could be run the same way as he had captained the Pakistan cricket team.

Khan made the serious mistake of biting the hand that fed him. His party Tehreek-e-Insaf’s effective social media campaign may have grown his popularity but it was not in consonance with his performance as prime minister.

His influence, meanwhile, had seeped into the armed forces as well, dividing them politically as perhaps never before in the history of Pakistan. There are widespread allegations that the recent election was rigged. While aggrieved individuals are entitled to present their complaints to a tribunal designated for the purpose by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), chances are these pleas will be brushed aside at the behest of the all-powerful army.

Tehreek-e-Insaf was banned by the ECP from fighting elections under its name and symbol (a cricket bat). Thus, a large number of its candidates contested as Independents. They apparently comprise — though not all may be Khan’s flagbearers — the largest elected segment in Pakistan’s national assembly. Yet it is not a formal or recognised group.

Consequently, the largest and second largest parties in the house — namely the Sharif family’s Muslim League and the Bhutto family’s People’s Party — in coalition with a faction of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (mostly Karachi-based, Urdu-speaking settlers from India) and other smaller parties appear to have the Army’s consent.

As parties recognised by the ECP, they will also benefit, pro rata, from the spoils, by way of seats reserved for women and minorities. The reappointment of Bilawal Bhutto of the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) as foreign minister will be popular with the country’s diplomats, who were impressed with his previous stint.

His brief appearance in Goa last year at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting of foreign ministers was not sufficient data to assess him, but as a 35-year-old, he is possibly less affected by the bitterness of Partition. On the other hand, no Pakistani foreign minister can escape the baggage of Kashmir.

The choice for top office is 72-year-old Shahbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML(N). He held the prime minister’s office until a caretaker government took charge in August. He gets along with the army better than his elder brother Nawaz. It is hard to imagine that China, Pakistan’s closest current ally, did not have a view on this.

On the other hand, with Khan sidelined, the US will likely jockey to bring Pakistan back into its sphere of influence, while imposing conditions the Chinese perhaps would not. Benazir’s husband Asif Zardari of the PPP could be in the mix as titular president.

The important provincial government in Punjab will be led by the PML(N), with Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, 50-year-old Maryam, as chief minister; Sindh will go to the People’s Party and Balochistan will probably see a PPP-led coalition. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, though, it will be hard to keep out Imran’s PTI, which swept the province with Independents it had backed.

So, the Pakistan army has seemingly secured what it desired — Khan out of the way and a multi-party government, which cannot be confrontational. It will pronounce that this was the voters’ verdict, for contrary to expectation, the turnout was high and the tally of Independents, belying the army’s expectation, outstripped the largest single party.

In other words, the Army will argue it could not have tampered with the results. All that aside, Pakistan’s primary concern has to be the economic quagmire the country finds itself in. The Army will, therefore, keep an eagle eye on the finance minister in the new government.

A stagnant economy means a smaller pot for the armed forces too, even though their allocation in the federal budget is a staggering 46 per cent.

(Ashis Ray can be found on X @ashiscray)

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