Why India must closely watch political turmoil in Pakistan

Pakistan’s rulers which include the military brass have finally found a way to keep former Prime Minister Imran Khan out of the race in the national election scheduled for February 8. Khan has been sent to jail and banned from holding an electoral office.

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Saibal Dasgupta
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Nawaz Sharif

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

Pakistan’s rulers which include the military brass have finally found a way to keep former Prime Minister Imran Khan out of the race in the national election scheduled for February 8. Khan has been sent to jail and banned from holding an electoral office.

Khan, arguably the most popular leader in today’s Pakistan, has been convicted in a corruption case and jailed for 14 years. The move comes soon after the Election Commission took away the election symbol--a cricket bat—from Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).The new development will pave the way for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to win the election as PTI, the biggest challenger, is in complete disarray. PTI is in no position to get its act together as it faces the election in the absence of several senior leaders and thousands of its workers who have been sent to jail on a wide range of charges.

Going by the 10-year ban imposed by the Lahore High Court, Khan, 71, cannot hope to occupy an electoral office before 2034. There is little chance of Khan escaping the legal dragnet that binds him. He is likely to approach the apex court to overturn the decision of the Lahore court. But his supporters are losing hope of Imran’s political survival unless there is a massive public revolt that can exercise pressure on the caretaker government.

MESSAGE FOR INDIA

India is closely watching the emerging situation in the neighbourhood because Pakistani politicians routinely use anti-India sloganeering to enhance their popularity and win elections. The situation is delicate because the military brass is wrapped up in election politics to ensure victory for their favourite politicians.

Pakistan’s military never recovered from the public humiliation—the worst it has suffered in decades—on May 9, 2034, when thousands of Imran Khan supporters took to the streets shouting slogans against the armed forces, mobbing military cantonments and even the homes of the top military brass. The public had suddenly lost all fear of the military which had indirectly run the affairs of the state since the formation of Pakistan.

IMRAN DOWN AND OUT

Before the revolt, Imran Khan cast aspirations on the military in a variety of ways. He even said that a senior military intelligence official was responsible for the assassination of the former chief of the army, Qamar Javed Bajwa. Khan also accused the US government of interfering in the internal affairs of Pakistan.

The military responded to the May 9 revolt in a furious manner. It forced the then government of Shehbaz Sharif government to hand over much of its powers to the armed forces, and pass the controversial amendments to the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and Pakistan Army Act (PAA) to punish Imran and his supporters. It curbed media freedom and ordered the arrests of prominent journalists and social activists.

Challenging the military has proved to be Imran Khan’s doom. But the military has not recovered from the loss of its image. This is why diplomats and analysts fear that the military might resort to desperate ways, even war, to improve its image in the public eye. 

NAWAZ: THE NEW BEACON OF HOPE

Nawaz Sharif is a rare Pakistani leader who has repeatedly advocated reduction in animosity and improvement in the country’s relationship with India. The question is whether he would be able to implement his ideas on foreign policy if elected to power. 

By suppressing PTI and its leader, Imran Khan, the military is paving the way for the return of Nawaz Sharif to power. It is evident that the military generals would exercise tremendous influence over the next government and even indirectly control it. This is a risky situation from India’s point of view.

PTI which is now being led by Imran’s legal counsel, Gohar Ali Khan, is unable to directly contest the election because it now no electoral symbol. PTI candidates will contest as independents with limited resources. It may be difficult for the independents, if elected, to continue in PTI and they may join other parties.

ROLE OF INDEPEDENTS

But the independents will play a key role if no party gains a clear majority. Sharif’s party, PML-N, is competing for power with the Pakistan People’s Party led by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. Observers think neither of the two parties can garner a clear majority and will try to lure in the independents with money and offers of ministerial posts.

The country is run by a caretaker prime minister, Anwarul Haq Kakkar, who is regarded as a puppet controlled by the military. Ministers in Kakkar’s interim government are also known as military loyalists giving the generals almost absolute authority.

A large number of strategic appointments of serving and retired military officers have been made in different segments of the civilian government. Official bodies like the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) are now controlled by serving or retired military officers.

As things stand, Nawaz Sharif has emerged as a front-runner in the election. But there is serious doubt that he would succeed in garnering sufficient support to create a government. Political observers feel that the military will play a key role in pushing independents and newly-elected MPs in other parties to enlist support for Sharif.