There is a familiar ring to the current political crisis in Pakistan. A prime minister, embattled on different fronts struggling to stay on in power to complete a full term. Familiar because no prime minister in Pakistan has to date ever completed his or her full term of five years — as good an indication as any of how much a fledgling project democracy in Pakistan remains.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government was from the beginning a coalition with a slender majority. It now is on its last legs with a key ally having deserted it to join up with the combined Opposition determined to force a change by a vote of no confidence. This outcome owes much to acts of omission and commission of the government and of the prime minister. These included an excessively combative Imran Khan almost from the time he was sworn in — using accountability and anti-corruption to mount what appeared often to be a witch hunt and which had the predictable consequence of making the Opposition parties coalesce together and also attract recalcitrant elements from both the ruling party and the coalition.
The past few days culminating in the withdrawal of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement from the coalition had been open season for allies to call the shots and demand their pound of flesh from either the government or the Opposition combine as the price of their support.
There is in addition a debilitating economic situation in which policy failures and older structural ills have been compounded by two years of the pandemic. Bad economic numbers now look even worse. Alongside these factors, a key driver in the current political crisis has emerged from the prime minister’s rocky interface with the army. This latter factor attracts usually the most attention because its role in Pakistan’s polity has been a near-constant for about as long as anyone cares to remember. The army turning its back on Imran Khan and adopting a posture of ‘neutrality’ underwrite much of what has unfolded in the past few weeks. If that position continues, it is all but certain that it will soon be curtains for Imran Khan’s current tenure as Prime Minister. But till the final deciding vote is cast in the no-confidence motion that ‘if’ about the army’s role will remain.
The general consensus in Pakistan is that it is now all over barring the shouting. What happens thereafter is less clear and that lack of clarity hangs like a cloud over the drama playing out in Islamabad. Will Imran Khan resign rather than face a vote? Will there be a mid-term election thereafter? Or will Shahbaz Sharif — deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s brother and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League — be the new prime minister? This latter possibility appeared to be the consensus till a few days ago. But contrarian views to this also exist. Will any political leader want to be prime minister for about a year or so till the next elections?
Given the dire economic situation that prevails and the tough decisions required, this would be at the very least a thankless job risking enormous political costs in the next elections. Then there is the spectre of a mauled but defiant Imran Khan out in open opposition wearing the garb of a martyr forced out of office by a foreign hand in conspiracy with domestic fifth columnists. His past record suggests a formidable capacity for mobilising the streets to bring normal life to a grinding halt.
In brief, the possibility of political instability in the midst of an economic crisis stares Pakistan in the face. This may well be the one situation the Army wishes to avoid and could push it off its perch of neutrality into becoming an active player in managing the end game of the present situation.
Over the next few days, the rumour mills of Pakistan will grind ceaselessly over these issues. Will the way out be an unlikely compromise whereby Imran Khan continues for a little while longer as prime minister to exit with pride and ego intact, following which a general election is held with a transitional technocratic government in charge and one which will take in the interim the painful decisions all political parties will baulk from? Or will Shazbaz Sharif bite the bullet and by becoming prime minister give some solace and space to his party and to the exiled Nawaz Sharif before the next election? Or will some other expedient be thought of? Time or the next four-five days will tell.
What should we in India make of all this? For some it is tempting to see these developments through a prism of Pakistan progressively making itself irrelevant to everyone except itself. There is, therefore, the view that we can ignore this neighbour or deal with it, as and when required, tactically or as a security issue on the border. Obviously national security responses are an essential part of the spectrum that should constitute India’s Pakistan policy. Yet kinetic and tactical responses cannot make up the entire spectrum. For if there is a salutary lesson for South Asia from the Ukraine crisis it is that neighbourhood relations have to be managed and addressed continuously.
What is required is imparting greater stability to the India-Pakistan interface. Some positives exist in an otherwise bleak scenario. The ceasefire on the LoC has held well for over a year since both sides reaffirmed it in February last year. The erroneous missile launch saw a Pakistani response that was striking for its maturity. The first-ever transit of Indian wheat through Pakistan to Afghanistan stands out in an otherwise frozen connectivity environment. Perhaps the shaking up of the political pieces in Pakistan may throw up some opportunities to build further on these.
In a few months Pakistan may go through yet another transition when the tenure of its current Chief of Army Staff ends. Within that timeframe the resumption of full diplomatic relations and some activity on the trade front are among the realistic low hanging fruit. We should be alive to possibilities that may arise from the musical chairs underway in Islamabad and if they do materialise, be ready to grasp them.
The author is a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan. Views expressed are personal.