From the polemical and political dust storm that envelops Pakistan today, three principal issues can be extracted.
The first is Imran Khan. The deposed prime minister is now on the warpath and leading his supporters from the front. Both he and his band of supporters appear to have convinced each other that only a foreign conspiracy led by the United States and assisted by domestic fifth columnists could have unseated him. This is a self-contained position and any empirical evidence pointing to the contrary is part of the conspiracy itself. Whether true or not, and however much the better informed may scoff at such theories, it has enough traction to keep the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf base going and for its core support to rally around.
And rally round they have. In the past few days, massive rallies at Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore have demonstrated that nothing quite works as well as the toxic narrative of a foreign conspiracy. The remedy Imran Khan seeks is simple and seemingly reasonable for any democracy and all the more potent because of that — an immediate election.
A march on Islamabad has now been announced and when it happens it will be both a show of strength as also a point of pressure. Imran Khan’s aim is to stay in the news and keep the new government off-balance with the expectation that pressure leads to mistakes and timely governmental missteps would skew the narrative in his favour.
The second issue is the new government itself. Shehbaz Sharif as the new prime minister has, notwithstanding his vast administrative and political experience, an unenviable task on his hands. The economy is on everyone’s mind but no easy shortcuts are visible. A depreciating currency and high inflation are incubators of anti-incumbency that no sitting government can ignore, no matter how recently it inherited Pakistan’s complex economic problems.
Then there are the problems that emerge from a large and diverse coalition with many internal stresses and strains. It is still very early days for tensions and contradictions to show, but they are there. In addition, there is the resistance being put up by the remnants of Imran Khan’s state structure. These, beginning with the President of the Republic, have had no qualms in placing their personal loyalty above their constitutional role. In the case of the President not swearing in the new prime minister — this may have been no more than an irritant. But such resistance is also more than just a nuisance and in Punjab there is the odd situation of a new chief minister (Shehbaz Sharif’s son) not being sworn in because of the Governor’s partisan role.
But possibly the new government’s biggest problem is something far more subjective and non-quantifiable: The question of its longevity. For a new architecture to govern without a fixed time frame in mind acts as an unstated but undeniable dampener to any and all efforts to maintain enthusiasm and retain support. Will the new government serve the full term till mid-2023 and if not, what is the time frame it has in mind to continue in office? That is the question that is repeatedly asked and to which there is no clear answer. This absence of a simple answer makes Imran Khan’s demand for an immediate election that much more potent in political terms.
The third issue concerns the Army or the Establishment. Its neutrality in the face-off meant that Imran Khan’s days as Prime Minister were effectively numbered. That neutrality was a conscious choice and it came at the end of a period of disillusionment and disenchantment with Imran Khan’s governance style and growing doubts about his ambitions. That the Pakistan People’s Party or the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif appear preferable today to Imran Khan is ironical given the history of the Army’s interface with these parties. But that was the choice it made or was forced to make.
What the Establishment’s position and role will be in the coming months is a question that acquires extra weight because of the looming transition on account of a new Chief of Army Staff to be appointed in November this year. How the political uncertainties mentioned above will impact this more bureaucratic and orderly process is again a question with no clear answer. Is Imran Khan’s strategy in demanding an immediate election an attempt at aiming for the impossible — that he as prime minister appoints the next Army Chief in November? Prima facie this appears an unrealistic scenario but who can predict the Khan’s strategies and calculations. More likely appears the assessment that the army’s preference is for the current government to stay in place till the end of the year to see the army transition through.
The past weeks have not been smooth for the army. There has also been an onslaught of sorts on social media targeting the army’s role in Imran Khan’s exit. Some of this is traced also to former military officers, many of whom remain supportive of Imran Khan and his simplistic solutions to create a ‘Naya Pakistan’. Such public criticism is not something the army is used to and therefore is hypersensitive about. The unseemly scenes and uncertainties that accompanied Imran Khan’s exit certainly may have also suggested to many in the army hierarchy that this was in part also the consequence of neutrality being taken too far and that Pakistan’s image has suffered consequently. Whether there is a more interventionist urge in the upper echelons of the army command is not known but is speculated about endlessly. But all this contributes further to the importance of the ‘choosing the next Chief’ issue.
These three issues by no means comprise the full portfolio of challenges and issues the government will have to confront. On the external front there are mounting difficulties with Afghanistan and the perennial issues of what to do with regard to India, quite apart from other uncertainties. Yet the domestic imbroglios will suck most of the oxygen from the room. What is certain is that over the rest of the summer the intensity of political contestation in Pakistan will steadily grow and quarter will neither be given nor expected.
The author is a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan. Views expressed are personal.