What Will an Imran Khan-Narendra Modi Jodi Mean for India-Pakistan Relationship
Already the old myth that India is not a factor in Pakistani elections has been busted. Imran Khan in particular has used India to paint Nawaz Sharif in lurid colors. His anti-India rants and allegations reveal the mindset of the man.
The hurly-burly of the hustings and the back room manoeuvers by the Pakistani ‘deep state’ – including but not limited to the “miltablishment” and ‘department of agriculture’ (the new euphemism for the dirty tricks department of ISI which intimidates and threatens candidates to jump ship and switch political loyalties, and is in the forefront of clearing the field for their ladla a.k.a Imran Khan) – shouldn’t divert focus from the fact that regardless of who gets to wear the crown of thorns in Islamabad, he will have to confront dreadful challenges that are going to be only made more complicated by the political shenanigans of the ‘institutions’ – the military and judiciary – that have badly tainted the election process.
The first challenge will of course be of forming a government. There is a consensus of sorts among political pundits that no party is likely to get a majority on its own. While all the field-setting that has been done to favour Imran Khan has put him in pole position, the best estimates are that he will fall short of a majority.
To reach the magic number of 137 (directly elected members of the National Assembly) Imran will have to win over the independents (who are going to extend their pound of flesh before they join him, which in turn will tarnish his carefully cultivated image of being an agent of change and an anti-corruption crusader). The other option is that he forms a coalition by roping in some of the smaller parties, which will bring with it its own problems.
A few of these parties like the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) have actually been manufactured by the ‘miltablishment’ for precisely such an eventuality. The MQM and its breakaway faction PSP, and the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) cobbled together in Sindh could also be forced to support Imran Khan’s PTI.
Chances of Imran managing to tie up with the bigger parties – PMLN, PPP, MMA or even ANP) — are slim, not the least because of the bad blood he has created with them. Of course, if despite all the efforts to put Imran in the driving seat, the numbers fall short, then the ‘Khalai Maqlook’ (aliens or angels, yet another euphemism for the ‘deep state’) will engineer defections from the bigger parties.
Although the law doesn’t permit such defections, in Pakistan the law and justice is not what is there is the statute books but what the men in khaki say it is. The problem is that stealing the mandate of other parties could lead to unintended consequences – some Pakistani analysts are already talking of another 1970 like situation developing. While that might be a little alarmist, the possibility of massive resentment and unbridgeable political cleavages that could tear the fragile political fabric isn’t so farfetched.
Of course, all these calculations could be unnecessary if, as often happens, the ‘angels and aliens’ overplay their hand and Imran manages to win a majority on his own. The problem in that case will be that the guy is so full of himself that he could become quite insufferable for the ‘miltablishment’. This means that sooner rather than later, the spectre of civil-military dissonance will come into play when Imran tries to assert himself or the military tries to push him too hard on things close to its heart.
On the other hand, if the calculations go completely awry, and the PMLN actually manages to win enough seats to forge a coalition (or if you will a national government that has been proposed by Shahbaz Sharif) there will be huge issues in managing and running such a dispensation. Worse, the civil-military tensions will continue to hobble such a government.
In any case, given that the elections have become controversial even before a single vote has been cast means that the legitimacy of the next government, especially one led by Imran, will be constantly questioned and challenged.
The bitterness caused by the stolen election will not allow the government to settle down and undertake the sweeping reforms and tough decisions that are required to stabilise Pakistan. The fear that is being expressed by some analysts is that instead of mere political instability, what Pakistan could be staring at is political chaos and anarchy, something that could easily lead to a direct intervention by the Praetorian guard – the army. So much for Pakistani politics and for Pakistani democracy!
Once some sort of a government assumes office, the immediate crisis that it will have to confront is the economic meltdown that is staring the country in the face. The Pakistani rupee has collapsed and has depreciated by almost 30% in the last few months. The foreign exchange reserves are perilously low. Massive debt repayments are due even as the current account deficit and the fiscal deficit is spiraling out of control.
Notwithstanding the brave face and the typical bluster of the Pakistanis, seeking yet another bailout from the IMF is now unavoidable. But such a bailout will come with stiff conditionalities, most of which are likely to be front-loaded.
By definition IMF programmes require painful adjustments the brunt of which are borne by the people of the country. This will end the political honeymoon of the government and deprive it of whatever little political capital it has.
Apart from the political and social cost that an IMF programme will entail, there is the diplomatic and security dimension that will also come into play. There are real fears that pressure could mount on Pakistan on some of its security and foreign policies as a quid pro quo for the bailout.
Pakistan could be forced to make major changes in its Afghanistan policy and that could become a point of friction between the civilian government that will have to carry the can of economic stabilisation and adjustment, and the military which would resent any strategic compromise.
The other problem of the IMF programme will be that it will devastate the assumptions on which the entire CPEC project was predicated. The loans taken by Pakistan from China for CPEC can be repaid only if there is an uptick in the economy. But the IMF programme is likely to result in a fall in the growth rates which will make servicing the Chinese debt and repayments so much more difficult.
Already, there are problems in paying the Chinese companies for the power projects that have come online. Many Pakistani economists are already suggesting that Pakistan will need to renegotiate all the CPEC contracts with the Chinese.
Whether the Chinese, who insist that these are private investments for profit, will be ready to force their companies to take the hit for their ‘iron brother’ and ‘all-weather friend’, remains to be seen. But at the very least, the grandiose plans that Pakistanis had conjured up on CPEC and which involved massive Chinese investments in Pakistan could stall. If this happens then the ability of the Pakistanis to repay the Chinese will get severely constrained, which in turn could drive a wedge in the relationship.
On most other foreign and security policy issues – relations with India, in particular the policy on Kashmir, relations with the US and Afghanistan and indeed the relationship with the Saudis and Iranians – the next government will perforce have to toe the line set for it by the miltablishment.
The Saudis aren’t exactly enamored of Imran Khan who was the biggest critic of Saudi request for Pakistani troops for the Yemen war. The Emiratis too are lukewarm to the proponents of naya (new) Pakistan. The US under Trump could turn the screws harder on the Pakistanis to deliver on Afghanistan. The Afghans are for now playing along with the latest bilateral initiative to put relations back on track but this could collapse if the Pakistanis don’t live up to their side of the bargain which includes making the Taliban and other Islamist terror groups amenable to a negotiated settlement.
Finally on India, there is unlikely to be any forward movement. Already the old myth that India is not a factor in Pakistani elections has been busted. Imran Khan in particular has used India to paint Nawaz Sharif in lurid colors. His anti-India rants and allegations reveal the mindset of the man. His close lieutenants have been openly hobnobbing with international terrorists and defending their association with them.
In any case, even if this was all just election rhetoric, the fact that Imran’s legitimacy will be questioned and he will not have much political capital to take, or even reciprocate, any real initiative with India, means that he will kowtow to the line that the ‘miltablishment’ gives him. Therefore, instead of harbouring foolish hopes that the next government in Islamabad will be a partner in peace, India needs to prepare for more of the same inimicalness that it has experienced over the last 70 years.
If anything, India could see a spike in terrorism given the deep inroads that radical Islamists have made in Pakistani politics. In other words, India must not waste time hoping for the best and it would be better served by preparing for the worst.
(The writer is a senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.)
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