Every time a new leader assumes power, hopes soar high. Given the economic and political turmoil in Pakistan and its past democratic trajectory, there isn’t much to write home about
After a long political drama, Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif took oath as the 23rd Prime Minister of Pakistan on April 11 (Monday). The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government was toppled after its coalition partners withdrew their support, alleging that then PM Imran Khan plotted against the Pakistani army chief, General Bajwa. It is noteworthy that Imran Khan became the first Pakistani PM to be dethroned through a no-confidence motion, but he continued the Pakistani Prime Ministerial legacy: like all his predecessors since the creation of Pakistan, Imran Khan failed to complete a full term. Yes, no Pakistani PM has completed a full term as the Islamic country continues to get more haywire with each supposedly chaotic iteration that only seems to aggravate the situation.
His tenure at the office was marked with big promises, larger-than-life claims, and rhetoric that would make any outsider burst into laughter, but they put him in a better position among Pakistanis. He often copied body language from a popular Netflix series called Ertugral, which glorified Turkish Islamists in an imaginary plot set in the 13th century. He also successfully mesmerised the Pakistani public with his pollyannaish talks on Naya Pakistan and the creation of a utopic land, Riyasat-e-Madina beyond the land of the original Muslims, Saudi Arabia. His shenanigans helped him tremendously as he dodged inflation, stalled growth, increasing debt, depleting forex reserves, unemployment, corruption, and other national failures that he once claimed to address. However, it is noteworthy that his background also helped him quite a lot in ascending to the PM’s chair, as rural Pakistanis saw him in high regard due to his privileged schooling abroad and a subsequent stint as the Pakistani cricket team’s captain. To them, he was a man who knew Europe and other foreign powers, had a good command of English and, most importantly, a mindset that appeared more Islamist than Arabs themselves when it came to speeches in public rallies.
Despite the fact that this is commonplace among our neighbours, it is a concerning situation for us given the state of the world today. Let us understand why this routine power dynamics shift in Pakistan will have lasting implications and ramifications for India and the world at large.
First, it is necessary to understand that no Pakistani government can survive without the active support of the Pakistani military establishment, and Imran Khan’s debacle was rooted in ignorance of this fact. He remains a popular leader in Pakistan despite being ousted from the top constitutional chair, but he has been at odds with Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa. On April 9, he attempted to fire Bajwa in order to help one of his confidants, Lt Gen Hameed, advance to ISI’s top brass.
With this being said, it is essential to take into consideration the saying, “every country has an army, but the Pakistani army has a country.” Right from Fauji Riceflakes to Fauji Fertilizers, the Pakistani Army is involved in almost every business. Be it political or financial, the power in Pakistan flows to Islamabad via Rawalpindi. The judiciary, too, showed Imran the door, further reinstating the army’s command over the political system in the country. None of this was taken lightly by Imran Khan, as he came up with multiple emotional speeches in the last month of his tenure, with the one on the 10th of April receiving overwhelming support from ordinary Pakistanis. He went on to name the USA as the chief foreign power conspiring to dethrone his regime amid Pakistan’s growing proximity to both China and Russia. The Pakistani Army has, so far, abstained from participating in any capacity throughout the power transfer process, at least on the surface. The next elections are expected to be held before October, as the PML-N and PPP plan to use this time to build political support on the ground. Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, may try to push for early elections by resigning from all provincial and national assemblies but this exercise isn’t likely to bear fruit.
The economic aspect of Pakistan-China partnerships will continue to remain in the dark as Pakistan recently repaid a billion-dollar loan back to Saudi Arabia by borrowing another loan from China at a higher interest rate. Such underpinnings continue to burden the Pakistani economy, which is currently witnessing a 35-billion dollar trade deficit, a historic high for the country
These developments could translate directly into increased friction between Pakistan and Afghanistan, if not already have upsurged, as the two radicalised and bigoted Islamic countries continue to face mutual heat. On the other hand, the cash-strapped Taliban has been facing economic troubles and political segregation from the world’s democracies ever since it seized control of Afghanistan, while its warlords eye Pakistan as the new battleground. Its grip over the Taliban seems to be fading away, with an increasing number of instances being reported where the Pakistani Army and the Taliban’s jihadis come to loggerheads. With the USA stating that it has replaced Pakistan with Qatar on the Taliban front, the scenario holds potential hazards for multiple players in the region. Lisa Curtis, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Centre for a New American Security think-tank noted, “We (the United States) don’t need Pakistan as a conduit to the Taliban. Qatar is definitely playing that role now.”
On the China front, everything seems to be normal as the current PM, Shehbaz Sharif, is known to liaison with China over the $60 billion CPEC project as the head of Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province. Even Imran Khan was quite vocal about his support for China, which leaves the arising conditions pretty much the same as in the past. However, the economic aspect of Pakistan-China partnerships will continue to remain in the dark as Pakistan recently repaid a billion-dollar loan back to Saudi Arabia by borrowing another loan from China at a higher interest rate. Such underpinnings continue to burden the Pakistani economy, which is currently witnessing a 35-billion dollar trade deficit, a historic high for the country.
For India, the increased chaos doesn’t seem to be a good sign, as Shehbaz Sharif’s opening statements in the Indo-Pak relations under his tenure were aimed at dragging Kashmir into wordplay. However, it is noteworthy that, unlike Imran Khan, who resembles a down-tuned version of Aravid Kejriwal due to their similar educated, dreamy personas that fail to achieve anything substantial on the ground, Shehbaz comes from a political family, with his brother Nawaz Sharif having secured the PM chair three times. Keeping in mind the fact that the Sharif family has followed a rather peace-oriented strategy on the Kashmir front, this may be a part of Sharif’s strategy to shift focus from inflation and other concerns. Regardless, the overall picture points to the fact that the Pakistani Army will be able to function with greater ease, which isn’t good news for the region’s security. On top of these developments, the diplomatic talks between the two regions remain suspended, which adds to the volatility of the situation. The political instability in the upcoming days may also worsen the dynamics as Imran Khan and his party are masters of taking the streets by storm. This may force the current regime to shift attention to other priorities, which isn’t a good sign either. Nonetheless, a regime change in Pakistan will only serve to erode the country’s current stability.
As regards the United States, Pakistan’s political crisis is unlikely to be a priority for President Joe Biden, who is preoccupied with the Ukraine conflict, unless it results in major upheaval or increased tensions with New Delhi, according to US-based South Asia specialists. “We have so many other fish to fry,” said Robin Raphel, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former assistant secretary of state for South Asia. “Because the military is in charge of the policies that matter to the US, such as Afghanistan, India, and nuclear weapons, internal Pakistani political developments are largely irrelevant to the US,” said Curtis, who previously served as the National Security Council’s senior director for South Asia under former US President Donald Trump. Khan has blamed the US for the present political situation, claiming that the US wanted him ousted after his recent trip to Moscow. Washington vehemently denies any involvement.
The reason behind such unprecedented political shifts can be largely attributed to the international pressures and various conventions, which bar any nation with an army coup from receiving foreign funds. In fact, Pakistan is currently eyeing a 6 billion dollar IMF bailout, which explains why the Pakistan army prefers to operate behind closed doors. History is a witness that a puppet government gives it the legroom to operate freely and yet receive foreign funds under the facade of democracy. It is up to us to disclose the reality of the impending doom of Pakistan’s democratic process, but it is certain that this model of maintaining the status quo in Pak’s power hegemony won’t survive as many future iterations as in the past. Every time a new leader is seated in the PM’s chair, the hopes soar higher than the last time, and the debacle, too, creates a greater ruckus.