It is always bad news when a neighbouring country plunges into a political crisis. India faces double trouble with two adjoining states on the boil —Pakistan and Sri Lanka. While President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit may mollify the people and a belt-tightening International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue programme save the Sri Lankan economy, no straightforward solution is in sight for Pakistan, where severe IMF strictures turbocharged the campaign against the Imran Khan government.
The situation in Pakistan is more nettlesome also because, apart from the IMF-imposed economic austerity, the dynastic leadership of the two main opposition parties—Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) under Shehbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party—with a gaggle of Maulana Fazalur Rehman-led small religious parties in train, had a personal stake in regime change, what with the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, in exile in London, being pursued on corruption charges.
But having unseated the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) regime, the opposition may find a deposed Imran an even greater challenge once he marshals his resources and PTI takes to the street and makes life miserable for the “khichdi” government of Shehbaz Sharif. In his address on the eve of the ‘no confidence vote’, Imran had warned this would happen. He seems to have majority support with the very large and motivated under-30 demographic in the country, fed up with rule by the dynasts, backing him.
In the political chess game in Pakistan, if government power is the king piece, the Pakistan army—as the guardian of the Pakistan ideology and the central prop of any civilian dispensation—is the queen piece that can manoeuvre any which way to ensure its interests are safeguarded. This translates into the Pakistan military getting its customary 16 percent share of the budget. Except last year, the national debt soared to 95 percent of GDP and 85 percent of the budget was apportioned to servicing it.
This situation has been a long time developing and is expected to worsen, leaving little for the army—the reason why the Pakistani military brass, General Qamar Javed Bajwa being the latest, have discounted India as a threat; a position that undermines the Pakistan army’s raison d’etre. But Shehbaz reassured the Pakistan army by tying peace with India to the Kashmir dispute resolution. The withdrawal of the army’s support on account of Imran’s alienating the US led to his downfall.
But Pakistan’s straitened circumstances mean that war with India is unthinkable. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the right moves by calling for peace and a joint effort to resolve development issues. He can go further in his response to the moderation shown by GHQ, Pakistan, in recent years—prompt release of Wing Commander Abhinandan, non-reaction to the misfired Brahmos missile—by more fully orienting the Indian military China-wards.
The redeployment of the I Corps, the army’s leading armoured strike formation, to the east is a beginning and, hopefully, will eventuate in a single armoured corps for Pakistan contingencies and the shifting of two strike corps worth of manpower and war materiel to raise two additional offensive mountain corps for the China front. Because one thing is certain—India cannot anymore afford to be delusional and prepare for a “two-front war”.
Fighting the far superior Chinese People’s Liberation Army in all domains, candidly speaking, is beyond the capacity of the Indian armed forces into the mid-term future, and why addressing this deficit should be India’s principal military concern and task hereon. It is a mission India should have embarked on post-1971 Bangladesh War when Pakistan was reduced and the minuscule threat it originally posed became non-existent. But political inertia and vested interests of various combat arms ensured the Indian government and military stayed stuck in the past.
Whatever the consequences for Pakistan, Prime Minister Shehbaz will be inclined, as his older brother Nawaz Sharif was, to open the border, resume trade, and negotiate the Kashmir issue through the backchannel. It had won for Nawaz, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s trust and the memorable bus trip to Lahore, a promising peace process torpedoed by General Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 Kargil misadventure.
To encourage Shehbaz to proceed along mutually beneficial lines, Prime Minister Modi should consider opening billion-dollar credit lines for Islamabad to offtake Indian manufactures and agricultural commodities to tide things over. Billion-dollar Indian credits are working in Sri Lanka to distance Colombo from Beijing, and could help to wean Pakistan away from China. It would display Modi’s Chanakyan foresight, set India and Pakistan on a course of irreversible peace, and put him, along with Shehbaz, in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Distinguished Fellow at the United Service Institution of India and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Policy Research. His ‘Security Wise’ blog is at www.bharatkarnad.com