Pakistan remains a predictably unpredictable nation. While its constitutional and political chaos makes instant headlines in India, it is nothing new. However, the more important part is the impact for India irrespective of the outcomes in Pakistan. One has also to appreciate the situation in Pakistan in the larger context of our neighbourhood as well as the global situation. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are in a state of extreme instability which will have a spillover impact on India. In addition, there is an opportunity opening in Nepal with the country attempting to reduce its dependence on China. Over and above this, the Ukraine war is also impacting India. Overall, the regional and extra-regional flux demands India to be on top of the game and handle the Pakistan factor with finesse.
Irrespective of the outcome in Pakistan, Imran Khan has kick-started a long season of political instability. At the fag end of his tenure he has painted himself into a ‘Desh Bhakt’ and his political opponents into some kind of ‘Gaddaars’ of Pakistan who is doing Amrika’s bidding? The entire Opposition and to an extent the army have been bracketed in the second group. He will take this theme into the elections and conflate it with his own personal popularity. While the Opposition is looking for power, he is already in campaign mode. In any case, even if the combined Opposition climbs into power through the judicial route at present, the chances of any government being stable beyond a point are bleak. Once Pakistan goes into election mode, then everything is up for grabs since all forms of opposition unity might fracture.
Another significant factor is that Imran’s rift with the army is now well established. He has thus managed to suck the army into politics. He had earlier politicised the army through the previous DG, ISI. A fault line has emerged in the façade of the Army monolithic leadership. View it from any perspective, the Pakistani Army is now part of the problem. It is no more like the old days when it was apart from the problem. If Imran Khan comes back into power, post the elections, then a different game will commence. If he does not come back into power, you can’t wish Imran away. Politically, he will remain a huge nuisance value. The entire process will be time-consuming since holding the elections within 90 days is physically not feasible. In essence, political instability and lack of governance will be a Pakistani feature for the rest of 2022 and beyond.
Weak or lack of governance under a caretaker prime minister will only enhance the existing economic instability in Pakistan. Inflation and price rise, debt repayment and depleted foreign reserves will hound Pakistan to take it further down the chute. Even after the elections, the chances of an economic recovery are weak since the situation would have deteriorated badly. Stability of any kind is feasible only after a stable government is in place. That is over the horizon. Will it end up the Sri Lanka way? Anybody’s guess.
From a security perspective things are already bad with the TTP and Baloch rebels upping the ante in the past three months with multiple attacks on security forces. The worst-case for Pakistan will unfold in this period. TLP will gain prominence since it is an extreme ideological movement with a vote share. Imran Khan will be the first person who will prop up TLP for electoral purposes. All this will lead to religious violence and generate greater instability. The Taliban will also loosen their strings tying them with Pakistan. Overall one can visualise an unstable western border with bouts of violence and increased radicalism in Pakistan. In turn, this will increase the pressure on the military. The downside is that Pakistan will try to externalise it by fomenting more trouble in Kashmir. India needs to watch out for that.
Another factor that has come out in the open is that there is a rift in Pakistani thinking on its international relations. The army chief wants to reset Pakistan’s relations with the US. Also, his views against Russia are out in the open. It will ruin the Russo-Pakistani bonhomie. That was apparent from his talk at the Islamabad Dialogues. In seeking a reset with the US, has he signalled a shift away from China? This will have a huge impact on Chinese thinking, CPEC, debt, etc. One major issue about which the Chinese will be concerned is that the new Pakistani tilt poses a threat to its ‘Two Ocean’ theory to superpower status.
Further an unstable Pakistan means an out of control Afghanistan. In turn, it means a threat to Xinjiang! Lot is at stake for China which is going through some problems of its own including a more than courtesy call by Wuhan virus in Shanghai. At the same time, Imran Khan has made public his anti-US stance and his pro-China leaning quite clearly. Will this lead to a rivalry between the US and China in the politics of Pakistan? This must be also seen in the background of the larger tussle between the US and China in the Ukraine War.
Also, it is clear that the US and the West are not happy with Imran going to Russia on a state visit as the Ukraine war was kicking off. The chaotic external affairs of Pakistan have only one way from here — downhill. The internal tug of war will have external ramifications. Overall, when one looks at it from any perspective, one can only see a cycle of enhanced instability in Pakistan for at least the rest of the year. Even after that the trust factor in Pakistan can only be rebuilt if there is a stable government, which is currently not in sight.
From an Indian perspective, any instability in Pakistan will have a spillover impact to some extent. However, it must be realised that the best option for India is an inward-looking Pakistan embroiled in its own muck. That is almost certain for the rest of the year. So the best course for India is to let Pakistan stew in its own juices. That is best achieved by doing nothing. It gives India a Godsend gift to attend to the challenges and opportunities opening up on the global stage. India must simply be on a wait, watch and monitor status.
There are other issues in the air. Will Pakistan implode is a favourite query? The chances of Pakistan imploding and breaking up are remote since the army will not allow that to happen. If a push comes to shove and the political situation deteriorates, the army will step in to take over. Further the situation of a breakup or implosion can only occur if there is evidence of fissiparity between provinces/ethnicities. The forces of fissiparity even along the Afghanistan border, even though troublesome, are not strong enough to break up Pakistan. In this regard, it will be prudent to conclude that Pakistan will remain as one, but in an unstable state.
The next international worry is: Will Pakistan’s nukes fall into the hands of rogue elements in case of further instability? To put in perspective, Pakistani nukes are safe and sound with the biggest rogue element in the state — the Pakistani Army. It must be realised that once upon a time, the nukes gave them protection against existential threats. That has long since vanished. Today nukes in Pakistan guarantee the perpetuity of Army power and dominance in the state. Nuclear weapons give the Army all the perks and privileges of an elite. The greedy Pakistani generals will not share this booty with other minor rogue elements in society. I am quite sanguine that the Pakistan Army won't lose sight of the nukes even for a second.
Lastly, when viewed holistically, Imran Khan was the best thing to happen to India. He single-handedly destroyed Pakistan beyond our wildest imagination. It is arguable that if there was a different prime minister from a different party, would Pakistan have been different? Doubtful. However, Imran Khan’s swingers made a difference. He took Pakistan to the precipice of disaster effortlessly. His statements and utterances made the world realise that they were dealing with a nation that sponsors terror and fosters radicalism as a tool of its state policy. He ensured that the gulf between Pakistan and India widened to an extent beyond bridging. Indians have gained strategic confidence and started to look beyond Pakistan. Pakistan has remained as it is and kept making bosom friends with the Taliban and Al Qaedas of this world.
It is to his credit that in Imran Khan’s tenure as the PM, the Pakistani passport became the second-worst passport to hold. Given time, he would have destroyed the fabric of the Pakistani Army. The return of Imran Khan holds immense promise for India. Let us hope that he has an active and prominent role in Pakistan in coming times.
The author is a former DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal.