Opinion World

All That’s Not New in Naya Pakistan

Nothing has changed in Pakistan. Here are five areas in which Imran’s election will make no difference.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party under Imran Khan’s leadership upstaged the grand old parties in the Pakistan general elections 2018. With outside support from the Pakistani Army and inside support from a few other political parties, PTI is set to form the next government that will administer the putative State of Pakistan.

In his post-election speech, Imran Khan promised to bring about a Naya Pakistan. Regardless of what he promised and what he didn’t, a deluge of commentaries on election day projected how this election was at once a slap on the face of corrupt leaders, a big moment for the democracy in Pakistan, and even a new opportunity for rekindling India-Pakistan relations.

So, in sympathy with fellow readers who had to endure these commentaries, I will focus on something diagonally opposite: what are the structural factors in Pakistani polity that haven’t changed with the 2018 elections.

The First Constant: Dominance of the Military-Jihadi Complex

By no means is this election a new hope for democratic forces in Pakistan. If anything, the message was quite the opposite — even a splendid success in national elections is no  ticket to question the dominance of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. Those who unravel this socio-political contract will find out that the judiciary no longer certifies the political leaders to be sadiq and ameen (honest and righteous), two conditions for holding public office that Zia ul-Haq inserted in the Pakistani Constitution to remind everyone where the power centre really was.

Not that there was ever a doubt. We have argued earlier that Pakistan is not one geopolitical entity, but two. The first is a putative state; represented by civilian governments and a civilian de-facto head of state, having its own flag and other paraphernalia that make it appear like a sovereign state. The competing entity is not just the military, as it is generally held. Instead, it is a dynamic syndicate of military, militant, radical Islamist and political-economic structures that pursues a set of domestic and foreign policies to ensure its own survival and relative dominance: the Military—Jihadi Complex (MJC).

Riding on his last electoral success, Nawaz Sharif asked tough questions of the MJC. This was made public in a October 6, 2016 Dawn report and the above-mentioned script played itself out. Even as a new government shapes up, the MJC’s message to it is clear: know thy limits.

The Second Invariant: A Friction Between the Two Pakistans

Like Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif was also a creation of the MJC. And yet, the two Pakistans clashed with each other on more than one occasion. Such is the logic of power, and we can expect that the same will play out even under a PTI leadership, albeit in an attenuated manner.

Najam Sethi explains it best:

Admittedly, the Miltablishment has stitched up an extraordinary political dispensation in difficult times. But, unlike Nawaz, the person they have chosen to lead it is strong-willed and unpredictable. In fact, Nawaz was eminently pliant. Yet, after a while, he felt compelled, given the nature of power, to try and be his own man. But this was unacceptable and he had to pay the price for even thinking such rash thoughts. Imran Khan, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. He may have embraced the Miltablishment as a tactical move but sooner rather than later he will begin to challenge the conventional wisdom of the national security state handed down to him. That’s when all bets will be off.

The MJC’s strong action against Nawaz Sharif has quelled the opposition to its ways and means for now. But as the tougher challenges of governance are taken up, there will be friction. The Army’s resistance to the 18th Constitutional Amendment which tried to bolster the fiscal autonomy of the provinces might well prove to be a starting point for these clashes.

The Third Disappointment: Dialogue Will Continue to Be Futile

The new PM of Pakistan hasn’t been sworn in yet. But that didn’t stop commentaries from both sides on why the ball is in India’s court to resume dialogue with Pakistan at the highest level. We released a discussion paper in 2016 arguing exactly the opposite. We explained that talks, especially at higher levels of the political ladder, have a close correlation with provocative action from Pakistan.

So, instead of wasting political capital on an exercise that is imminently counter-productive,  India must recognise that talking to Pakistan is no guarantee against terrorism, just as not talking to Pakistan cannot ensure India of a terror-free environment. We had written back then:

Only by putting in place mitigation strategies can India hope to better protect itself from the terror infrastructure that continues to thrive in Pakistan. These mitigation strategies require India to muster resources at its disposal (including political, diplomatic, economic and military) and channelise them much more effectively to both insulate the country and impose costs when transgressions occur. As for the current peace initiatives, India is better served by leaving the handling of its Pakistan policy to civil servants and diplomats, rather than its political leadership.

Hence, formulating India’s actions on the basis of a few conciliatory notes made in Imran Khan’s victory speech belies an understanding of the Pakistani politics.

The Fourth Constant: Strains in the China-Pakistan Relationship

Pakistan’s economy is in dire straits with unsustainable levels of debt. The Chinese are proving to be tough ‘masters’ for Pakistan (with apologies to Ayub Khan). On the economic front, China’s support to Pakistan has been conditional, and in the form of loans rather than grants. China’s flagship Belt & Road initiative, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, is now beginning to face opposition from several sections in Pakistan. There are many points in this engagement where the interests of Pakistan and China collide. Andrew Small, who has been tracking the China-Pakistan relationship observes that a CPEC slowdown is likely. Given how the Pakistani leadership has tied its economic fate to this one arrangement, such a move is bound to increase tensions between the two countries.

The Fifth Fixed Factor: Terrorism in and out of Pakistan

The failure of the new and old Islamist parties in the elections has been interpreted by a few as a rejection of extremism and terrorism. That is again a misconception. The PTI has been a supporter of the Afghan Taliban. It has backed Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Imran Khan has himself indulged in blatant anti-Ahmadi rhetoric. Besides, the fact that these elections saw the deliberate mainstreaming of terrorist outfits in the elections is itself a big cause of worry for the citizens of Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan alike.

Finally, the question of whether the Pakistan Army rigged the voting process is a moot one because those who are in control of the entire putative state need not depend on rigging the final voting process. Hopefully, these five constants outlined above will help us look at the Pakistan general elections 2018 for what it really was.

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Also check out:

The Two Pakistans: Episode 79 of The Seen and the Unseen

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About the author

Pranay Kotasthane

Pranay Kotasthane heads the geostrategy programme at the Takshashila Institution. His research interests focus on geostrategy, geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent, public policy, economic reasoning and urban issues.