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Militocracy triumphs again in Pakistan

Pakistan's power structure is unique with the Army sitting on top of the pyramid and former PM Imran Khan's attempt to break free of the Army's overlordship led to disputes.

Published: 20th April 2022 12:50 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th April 2022 07:31 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

After some laboured political and constitutional contortions, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan lost the no-confidence vote. Former PM Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, Shehbaz, leader of PML-N, was sworn in as the new prime minister.

Pakistan's President, an ally of Imran, took sick leave to avoid swearing in Shehbaz and the Senate Chairman had to stand in for him. Pakistan's Supreme Court took a tough stand on the constitutional issue and laid down strict markers for the no-confidence vote, which was repeatedly disallowed by the Speaker owing allegiance to Imran, knowing that the cricketer-turned-politician would lose.

In a show of defiance, 100 members of Imran's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party resigned from the National Assembly. Imran is the only PM to have been ousted by a no-confidence vote but he preserved the Army's enviable record of not permitting any PM to complete his/her tenure of five years in office. The Army, the ultimate arbiter of Pakistan's destiny, is sitting pretty, having pulled the strings from behind the scenes. Any PM who strays from the straight and narrow path laid down by the Army is doomed to bite the dust.

Imran's much vaunted promises of providing a corruption-free government had long gone up in smoke. His tactics of alleging an American conspiracy to oust him and his chutzpah in raking up the foreign conspiracy issue, based on a cable sent by Pakistan's Ambassador in Washington, was a calculated risk that backfired. Charging defectors from his PTI and other opposition MNAs of being corrupt and accepting bribes to oust him was another ploy that did not work.

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During this political drama, there were rumours that Imran had tried to dismiss Gen Qamar Bajwa and replace him with his favourite Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, the former DG, ISI who was very visibly hobnobbing with the Taliban leaders, after the latter took over power in Kabul. Faiz had helped Imran in his political campaign when the Army decided to prop him up. His popularity attracted the Army's attention and he became the chosen one to remove PM Nawaz Sharif, who was asserting the supremacy of the civilian government, much to the discomfort of the Army. In an election rigged by the Army, Imran became PM and was dubbed the "selected PM".

Imran’s record of governance has been pathetic and he has brought Pakistan's economy to the brink of bankruptcy and default. Even his claim to being above corruption is untenable. There are several allegations against him for raising illegal funds from abroad. Soaring inflation has driven the people to despair and the PTI's coalition partners were itching to ditch him when the time was ripe. The Army took advantage of these rifts.

The uniqueness of Pakistan's power structure, with the Army sitting on top of the pyramid, makes it a "Militocracy", wherein the Army zealously guards its turf in the security and foreign policy domains, apart from maintaining a firewall against interference in military affairs by civilian PMs. Unfortunately for Imran, he breached these longstanding "red lines" of the Army.

His attempt to break free of the Army’s overlordship led to disputes, the most egregious of which was the appointment of a new DG of the ISI, on which Imran crossed swords with the military. Pakistan's Army will not accept interference in its decisions on appointments from any PM. Imran's visit to Moscow may have been encouraged by China but became a bone of contention with the Army chief.

The Army has denied any foreign conspiracy and Gen Bajwa has rolled back Imran's tirade against the US. The Army chief has also condemned the Ukraine war and called it a "huge tragedy" and demanded that it should be stopped immediately via dialogue. He, predictably, tagged Kashmir to this issue and called for this dispute to be solved via dialogue. To assuage the Americans, Bajwa was all milk and sugar and said that Pakistan had "excellent" ties with it and extolled the "long and excellent strategic relationship with the US".

Imran had earlier praised India's independent foreign policy and contrasted it with Pakistan's inability to "stand on its own two feet". He had also tried to create a sub-group in the OIC with Turkey and Malaysia to challenge Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which led to bad blood with the two Arab countries. Foreign Minister Qureshi had publicly threatened the OIC for ignoring Pakistan's request to convene a FMs meeting over Kashmir.

The OIC's invitation to India’s EAM due to the UAE had irritated Pakistan considerably. Gen Bajwa had to mollify the two traditional Arab friends that had helped Pakistan with funds and provided credit for oil imports. Imran had consciously drifted towards the far-right, in his attempt to capture the position as the leader of the "Ummah" which challenged leaders like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. They would be happy to see him ousted as PM.

PM Shehbaz has made friendly noises about ties with India with the usual caveat about Kashmir. India has responded by saying that ties can only return to normal in an ambience free of terrorism. Shehbaz will not make any difference on the terror front as the Army will not abandon this asymmetrical tool against India.

Pakistan's failing economy has forced some decision like the conviction and imprisonment of UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed, the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief. Pakistan is also desperately trying to exit the grey list of the FATF, which has severely constrained its ability to raise foreign funding.

Shehbaz is a seasoned politician and an able administrator. He will basically be focussed on surviving as PM, as his coalition is a fractious one and will probably crack as the next election approaches in January 2023. He inherits a sinking economy and a wounded Imran who will fight back.

Shehbaz's tenure will be marked by a short honeymoon period and then limp along. He too faces several charges of corruption and money laundering and is unlikely to deviate from the line laid down by the Army and is likely to extend the tenure of Gen Bajwa, who has to retire in November this year.

Meanwhile, Imran has already returned to street politics and will continue to harass the Shehbaz government. He has been careful in not pointing fingers at the Army, keeping in mind that he could suffer the same fate as Nawaz.

He will want to cash in on the "victim card", and widespread anti-American and anti-Army sentiments for his political agitation. There are faint hopes that Shehbaz may ease up on business links with India, given his background as an industrialist, but even this will require a nod from the Army. The road ahead for Pakistan and bilateral ties with India are not promising.

(The writer is Former Ambassador and Secretary in MEA, and Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi and can be reached at pr.chakravarty@gmail.com)



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