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Pakistan Elections and India

General Deepak Kapoor is the former Chief of the Army Staff.
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  • August 08, 2018

    The results of Pakistan’s general elections are officially out and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan has emerged as the single largest party with 115 out of the 270 seats of the national assembly for which polling was held. The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Sharif (PML[N]) came a distant second with 64 seats, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Zardari Bhutto family stood third with 43 seats. The remaining seats are shared by smaller regional and fundamentalist parties as well as by independents. With support from some smaller groups/parties, Imran Khan is expected to form the government.

    At the provincial level, PML(N) has emerged as the single largest party albeit with a wafer thin lead over the PTI in Punjab, the critical province. Chances are that, here too, the PTI with support from smaller parties, which are vulnerable to arm twisting/rewards, would be able to form a government in due course. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has returned the PTI with an absolute majority for the second time. The situation in both Sindh and Baluchistan remains fluid for the present, but the possibility of the PTI cobbling up a simple majority with ‘establishment’ support in either or both is not ruled out.

    A large number of observers has dubbed this as Pakistan’s ‘dirtiest and most rigged’ election. Allegations of mass scale rigging are being levelled by major parties like PML(N), PPP, National Awami Party (NAP), etc., despite vehement denials by the Election Commission of Pakistan. Reports of non-supply of Form 45, unexplained delays in the announcement of results, throwing out of authorised agents of the parties from polling booths, discovery of ballot papers and empty ballot boxes from trash containers, etc. are doing the rounds regularly. In an unprecedented action, close to 370,000 army troops were deployed at polling booths across the country, ostensibly to provide ‘security’.

    A look at the country’s political landscape would indicate that unlike in most other countries democracy has not been able to flourish in Pakistan. The emergence of strong political parties led by popular leaders has been systematically nipped in the bud by the ‘deep state’ which has felt threatened by such a development. Thus, ZA Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto were killed when the PPP was at the peak of its power. Today, it is a mere shadow of its former self. Nawaz Sharif, the undisputed leader of PML(N) and three time Prime Minister, is incarcerated along with his daughter on corruption charges, thanks partly to an allegedly pliable judiciary. In the process, PML(N) has faced the ignominy of a number of its middle rung leaders deserting it for the PTI and reducing it to a rump. The vacuum on the political horizon thus created has been adroitly filled by propping up Imran Khan and his PTI. In all probability, Khan’s pliability would dictate the duration of his stay at the helm.

    The elections have also exposed the weakness of democratic institutions in Pakistan. Judiciary, media, legislature, election commission, National Accountability Bureau (NAB) etc. have all displayed vulnerability to manipulation. Use of strong arm tactics to coerce and subjugate any institution not towing the line has been resorted to on the pretext of national interest.

    Of even greater concern is the inability of the average voter to see through the hype and be carried away by sloganeering and propaganda. The feeling that their lot is not going to improve irrespective of who comes to power is making the electorate indifferent to election outcomes. No wonder the polling percentage has remained struck at around 53 per cent despite much greater exposure to media and technology. Additionally, the participation of fundamentalists and extremists in the elections is an equally disturbing trend. While they may not have made substantial gains in terms of final results, the very fact that they are being allowed to contest shows the fault lines in the system. It also displays the increasing acquiescence and acceptance of the gun culture which is expected to make further inroads in the future.

    The army has emerged stronger post the elections. Continuation of its indirect rule enables it to exercise authority without accountability. The pitfalls of direct rule a la Musharraf have been cleverly avoided especially in view of the deteriorating economic conditions. The ability to pull the rug from under the feet of a recalcitrant civilian political leadership has been retained. Clearly, the Army has benefitted from its past experiences!

    With that as the backdrop to the rise of Imran Khan to power, a question that is inevitable from every Indian is how his ascent will affect Indo-Pak relations. Will there be a change in Pakistan’s policy of waging proxy war in J&K? Will the ceasefire along the line of control (LoC) hold or will violations of the ceasefire agreement continue? Will trade and business relations get normalized? Will sports competitions between the two countries be resumed? Will Pakistan stop being a catalyst in igniting communal trouble in different parts of India?

    The role of the Pakistan Army during the last 70 years should give a fair indication of the shape of things to come and the answers to most of the questions posed above. It is the army which has controlled Pakistan’s India policy. Whenever a civilian government has attempted to improve relations with India, it has either had to backtrack on promises made or the Pakistan Army ensures that, through its actions at the LoC and inside J&K, these promises stand scuttled. In some cases, the government may even fall and its leaders sent to jail. Of course, the possibility of some stubborn leaders being assassinated also exists.

    Thus, it would be fair to assume that Indo-Pak relations will follow a similar pattern during Imran Khan’s tenure as Prime minister. He owes his position to the army and would be conscious of the fact that, with the wafer thin majority cobbled up by alliances with smaller parties and individuals, he would be on a slippery wicket should he not adhere to the prescribed text.

    Pakistan’s economic, diplomatic, moral and military support to the proxy war in J&K is likely to continue, perhaps with increased intensity. Closer coordination with China would be resorted to in dealing with India both at the regional and international levels. The development of CPEC may be speeded up. There would be an increased possibility of using the communal card to stir up trouble in different parts of India. Repeat of a state sponsored terrorist strike similar to 26/11 cannot be ruled out. Given all this, the current talk in India of embarking upon a fresh beginning with the new Pakistani leadership is an exercise in unbridled optimism.

    How is the change at the top going to affect Pakistan itself? First and foremost, fundamentalism is likely to get a fillip. Imran Khan has already earned the sobriquet of ‘Taliban’. The army too is keen to use the ‘good Taliban’ to further its proxy war in J&K and safeguard its interests in Afghanistan. Whether it can control the ‘bad Taliban’ or be swamped by its fundamentalist and terrorist actions is open to debate. Suffice it to say that extremism and fundamentalism are increasingly raising their ugly head in Pakistan and in the process have caused death and destruction. Resultantly, a number of countries today do not consider Pakistan a safe place to visit even for sporting activities/ competitions.

    Secondly, Pakistan’s economy is in shambles. There is serious doubt whether it is in a position to service loans coming up for redemption as early as in November and December. A number of these loans pertain to CPEC projects and are to be repaid to China. In the event of default, China will acquire tremendous leverage in securing unprecedented strategic gains as it did at Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Should Pakistan alternatively seek an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, it has already been hinted that IMF will not allow its funds to be used to repay Chinese loans. In any case, any bailout package from the IMF is likely to be accompanied by tough conditions which Pakistan would find unpalatable. With the Pakistani rupee having depreciated to 130 a dollar, Imran Khan would face difficult choices to pull the country out of this economic morass.

    Thirdly, the Pakistan Army is infatuated with the idea of ‘strategic depth’ against India. It, therefore, feels impelled to monitor the happenings in Afghanistan and control any dispensation that comes to power there. It is prepared to use all means at its command to keep India out of Afghanistan and establish a regime there which is favourable to it. With a compliant Prime Minister, these efforts are likely to intensify.

    Fourthly, US-Pakistan relations are gradually moving towards a new low. The latest US defence budget caters for providing only $150 million to Pakistan as aid as opposed to a billion plus dollars during previous years. The quid pro quo approach currently being followed by Trump in all US dealings with other countries demands substantial paybacks for the goodies being doled out. It is Pakistan’s hedging on deliverables and utilisation of aid to acquire weapons for use against India in the past that prompted the current US policy. This has not gone down well with Pakistan. But with limited options at its disposal and in an effort to corner India, Pakistan has moved towards a closer embrace of China. There is a likelihood that with the passage of time, Pakistan may well become a client state of China.

    Lastly, internally, the economic situation is rapidly deteriorating. Foreign exchange reserves are abysmally low at $ 9 billion, only sufficient to cover imports for two months. The current account deficit has widened and the rupee continues to slide. Poverty, unemployment, inflation, terrorism and corruption are gnawing at the vitals of the country. To top it all, a major chunk of the budget is cornered by the military annually. Imran Khan is likely to have his hands full in balancing these conflicting demands while at the same time endeavouring to keep the military happy.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.