Hamstrung by history, divided by ambition

A lack of national focus on development and welfare has kept Pakistan in disarray. The Army is divided, as is the polity, leaving few options for post-poll stability
Representational image
Representational imageExpress Illustrations | Sourav Roy

A neighbouring country under stress for long—especially one with whom we have had a troubled history—will not fade from the mind, whatever be its state. So many analysts are trying to figure what has changed in Pakistan after the recent general elections in which Imran Khan’s perceptibly popular party, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI), was axed out by a smart legal move. Despite that, the party got a solid backing from the people through the independent candidates it backed. Although not yet set in concrete, we could see a PML(N) government in Islamabad headed by Shahbaz Sharif and with issue-based support by the PPP of Bilawal Bhutto. PPP had an opportunity to take some important portfolios in the government, but declined. There is a common belief that the real winner in this election is the Pakistan Army. Yet, others are of the opinion that by placing controls on the participation of PTI and not adhering to the popular sentiment of the youth, the Army has called upon itself a major problem for the future. All this needs examination.

What needs reiteration is the fact that Pakistan, with 240 million people, is the fifth largest nation in the world in terms of population, but has a weak economy with a GDP of $340 billion and current forex holdings of $8.27 billion. Its national debt is at $223 billion. Its social indicators are dismal and the effects of climate change are being profoundly felt year upon year, without sufficient recourse to any institutional counters.

While money may be scarce, the more acute scarcity is about human commitment and a sense of empathy with the common people—all in a society with a massive asymmetry between the haves and the have-nots. For any upward movement in its social and economic parameters, Pakistan desperately needs a period of stability at its borders and resolution of internal conflicts to allow the deployment of a higher share of the limited funds on development. Unfortunately for it, political stability has eluded the country for long—its quality of politics is vicious and the streets are often paralysed by political stakeholders with selfish agenda. An ideologically-oriented terrorist movement threatens to hijack much of the attention and could be virtually the seed element for another cycle of global terror.

What has kept Pakistan in disarray is the lack of national focus on development and social welfare. India, too, has divisive politics, but one look at the administrative set-up displays a commitment towards uplift of the people; politics is played to the hilt but development is an electoral agenda, and the Indian Army is completely apolitical, unlike in Pakistan.

With Pakistan’s four main provinces governed by four different parties, finding a common thread for welfare is going to be difficult, especially because there is also the issue of the Army’s domination of politics. So deeply is the Army embedded in non-productive and self-aggrandising governance, that it can hardly be the arbitrator of differences among political parties and set the tone for a corruption-free attempt at uplifting the nation. It assumes unto itself responsibility towards the three primary issues of strategic national security—Kashmir, Afghanistan and internal security. That sets the agenda for everything. To break from the stranglehold, the relevant political parties have to emerge and either work with the Army on diluting the existing threats, or continue in the same light, thus only enhancing the threats.

Unfortunately for the people of Pakistan, both sides seem to have pushed the other to a corner from which any cooperation seems very improbable. First, the Army believes in maintaining its own relevance by projecting external and internal threats. As any other nation which has major development challenges, a moratorium on border issues needs to be placed with a minimalistic approach. The problem here is that the security establishment will invariably argue in favor of running a campaign in J&K and will energetically push back against the Taliban on the Pak-Afghan border. The security establishment is also unwilling to accept the degree of harm caused by the campaign to radicalise society and capture the ideological street of Islam. 

General Asim Munir’s ability to get the Army to climb down from its high horse is suspect. There is a divide within the Pakistan Army, as was evident in May 9, 2023 during the infamous Lahore incident involving the Corps Commander’s flagstaff house. A sentiment in favour of Imran Khan is also reported among the lower ranks of the officer cadre. The Army is divided and so is the polity, such that none trusts the other in the formation of a coalition government.

Even the Army’s capability of influencing, supporting and eventually urging government formation has diluted considerably. Being close to the uniform is also being perceived as a negative by most political parties in an era when the Army is getting unpopular. The Army will not rule on its own, as it does not wish to be tainted by failure and its political label will not be helpful for Pakistan in its outreach to the international community.

One option would be to return to fresh elections without any restrictions, in which case the PTI would score. This would be completely unacceptable to the Army. Second could be an interim coalition government with Army support on the lines of the Pakistan Democratic Movement, which was set up to fight Imran Khan. The PPP will need convincing on this as trust between the Zardaris and the Sharifs isn’t too strong. That is what the Army will wish too, more as a reprieve.

Sooner than later, the Army has to come to terms with the reality of Imran’s current popularity and the severe challenge that the rest of the polity, including the Army, faces in light of it. The Army, less the current leadership, could still get Imran on board and be in business. That spells the danger for General Munir, whose presence could be viewed as the stumbling block. We have been speaking of the need for Imran to watch his back. It is time General Munir followed the same advice for himself.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir

(Views are personal)

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