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Pakistan: Is it all coming to a head now?

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Pakistan as a subject has always piqued my interest, firstly, because of its impact on India and Indian politics. Secondly, I find the politics in Pakistan fascinating – its quasi-democratic, quasi-authoritarian political settlement enables a political analyst like me to study a wider kaleidoscope of Machiavellian politics than that seen in India. In my view, the path on which Pakistan is hurtling down could have devastating consequences for the country and its people – unless there is a genuine realignment in the power dynamics in the broader national interest.

Fires are raging everywhere.

Pakistan currently stands on a precipice and looking down on the abyss below. Its politics is in a mess, the economy is in doldrums, key institutions have been compromised, ethnic conflicts have sharpened considerably, the law & order situation has deteriorated significantly, human rights abuses have become more blatant, and development indicators are stagnant, if not moving southward.

Sample a few facts:

  • More than a dozen top political leaders from the opposition have been jailed for months on corruption charges without conviction. The only one convicted, ex-PM Nawaz Sharif, was done so through a compromised Judge, who accepted his guilt on hidden camera. Key opposition leaders have been hounded and their press conferences have been banned. The Azadi March led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman has further intensified the conflict between the ruling PTI and the opposition.
  • The economy is in the ICU. Economic growth has come down to 2.4% from a healthy 5.8% a year ago. Inflation is at 11%, and fiscal deficit at 8.9%. Debt to GDP ratio has crossed 100%. Electricity and gas prices have gone through the roof. The Pakistani rupee has depreciated 60% in 18 months and development expenditure has been slashed by more than 50%.
  • Ethnic conflicts have become quite magnified over the last year. The Baloch resistance has sustained despite attempts to clamp down by the Military. The Pashtun Tehefuz Movement (PTM), a homegrown, non-violent and mass movement has emerged as a potent force. The Mohajirs of Sindh are seeking their own security and space. The People’s National Alliance (PNA) in what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir is demanding `Azadi’ from the occupying forces.
  • Human rights violations have become the norm. Thousands of Baloch people and Pashtuns are picked up and put in internment centres without charges for indefinite periods. The entire KP province has been put under martial law. Prominent activists and intellectuals like Najam Sethi, Gul Bukhari, Taha Siddiqui, Mohammed Taqi, have been hounded and exiled for towing an anti-establishment line.

 To understand why the fires rage, understand the Establishment-driven politics in Pakistan.

Directly or indirectly the military establishment has controlled the levers of power ever since Pakistan came to be. For almost one half of its lifetime, the country experienced military dictatorships; and the other half has witnessed military controlled civilian rule, in which the degrees of freedom were sharply circumscribed. Internal security, strategic terrorist assets, India policy, Afghanistan policy etc. were virtually no-go areas for the civilian administration.

Now that the world doesn’t take too kindly to military coups, the Pindi Boyz (GHQ is based in Rawalpindi), as the generals are called, have maintained their suzerainty by using various methods at their disposal. Firstly, they have played favourites with different political parties at different times. From Nawaz Sharif to Benazir Bhutto, to Zardari, to Nawaz again and to Imran Khan now – the pendulum swings as the Boyz have wanted. When things came to a head, they have not hesitated to remove political leaders. Both Nawaz and Benazir were exiled, the latter was assassinated, and the former is critically ill due to a mysterious illness while in jail. Thirdly, they have sought to discredit civilian governments as corrupt and inefficient, while on the other hand, its formidable propaganda machine, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), has fed the Pakistani public the image of a glorified, professional and strong army that has forever guarded the national interests. Simultaneously, they have used their power to co-opt or coerce key institutions like the Judiciary and the Election Commission to toe the establishment line. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and the Intelligence Services (ISI) have been the trusted agencies that go after those who pose a threat to the interests of the establishment.

The continued dominance of the military in Pakistani politics has had very damaging consequences for the country. The situation today may not resemble 1971 when East Pakistan became Bangladesh, but 2019 is a whole new world. The legacy effects of this military dominance have created a volatile and toxic mixture of political instability, poor governance, economic distress, sectarian uprisings and growing radicalism.

So what caused the fires?

The embers had been burning for a long time. It just needed someone to add a combustible fuel to it. And that someone turned out to be none other than the blundering Establishment!

First, the establishment misread Nawaz Sharif and Maryam’s ability to withstand the fierce onslaught on them. Sharif’s disqualification from holding public office, his and Maryam’s conviction on corruption charges through the compromised NAB courts and subsequent imprisonment – these and more were all designed to break them down and do a deal. Just like Sharif, Benazir and Zardari had done before. This time, however, it was different. Both Nawaz and Maryam have fought back, refusing to do a deal and take the next flight out. Instead, they directly challenged the establishment by releasing a video of the compromised Judge who convicted Sharif. The fact that Sharif is now critically ill due to lack of medical attention in jail shows the level to which the establishment can go to get its objectives. But in this process, both the father-daughter duo strengthened their political capital, particularly in Punjab, while the fortunes of Imran Khan have sagged due to poor governance and vendetta politics.

Second, the strategy of the establishment to hoist the PTI and its charismatic leader, Imran Khan, into power has backfired spectacularly. Getting Imran Khan and the PTI through the backdoor was the establishment’s plan to neutralise the Sharifs, especially in Punjab. Some intimidation and offers to get the `electables’, quick stitching of alliances with other parties and smooth rigging of the results – the job was done. IK was the new PM, Punjab was PTI’s and a Naya Pakistan was in the making. But 14 months later, the new Pakistan resembles nothing like the Madina-e-Risayat that IK had promised. Prices of basic commodities have sky-rocketed, lakhs of jobs have been lost, law and order has deteriorated, quality of public service delivery has worsened. It’s increasingly clear that the government is far from being competent in governing the country. Voices are being raised against the establishment for having installed a puppet regime. The ongoing sit-in led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman that is reverberating with chants of “Go Niazi Go” is giving sleepless nights to both the selected and the selectors. It’s a matter of time before the establishment forces a regime change. The establishment desperately needs a face-saver and the longer IK stays, the worse it’s going to get for it.

Third, the establishment moved too fast on the global geopolitical chessboard from the American side to the Chinese. By keeping the Taliban card too close to their chest, they tried the patience of the Americans for far too long. Simultaneously, they jumped headlong into the belt & road Chinese bandwagon. The US cut its military aid to Pakistan; while the Chinese plied it with costly debt. This approach has two severe consequences for Pakistan. First, the economics went haywire. As long as it was a beneficiary of the US largesse and had the support of US-controlled institutions like the World Bank and IMF, it could somehow manage to keep its fiscal deficit at reasonable levels. Without them, the hole in the budget suddenly got much bigger. Running to the Chinese and the Saudis helped bring in precious foreign exchange but only in the form of debt. The bitter IMF pill that it is again forced to swallow is sending shockwaves across the entire economy. Second, the US started to turn the screw on Pakistan for its support to Jihadi actors and organisations. In the din of do-more and no-more, Pakistan suddenly found itself in the international spotlight. Then came the FATF grey list and now the country is ever so close to being blacklisted.  

Last but not the least, the approach of the establishment to curb and smother dissent and free speech has become very blatant. Tolerance for dissent and free speech always had limits in Pakistan; however, in recent times, there is a marked lowering of the tolerance to almost zero levels. And the methods being used to do so have become more blatant, arbitrary and fierce. The fate of Gulalai Ismail, a human rights activist, was a foregone conclusion had she not escaped from Pakistan. Now her father was abducted in broad daylight. There are more than 2500 unsolved forced disappearances reported from KP, Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab. And that’s official statistics. If earlier the media received whatsapp messages from the generals, now it is PEMRA issuing official gag orders. It is the Imran Khan regime that has institutionalised the Khaki methods of silencing critics – critics of the PTI and of the establishment. Earlier under Nawaz or under Zardari, the modus operandi of the Pindi Boyz was rarely direct and often concealed or through cultivated religious groups. Under IK, both are on the same page. But the page belongs to the establishment.

So What are the Implications

First, political stability in Pakistan in the short to medium term is unlikely. With or without Imran Khan, politics will be in a flux. Outcomes could vary depending on how deals are struck, or not, with the establishment by different players. It could be an Imran-less PTI government, a Shahbaz Sharif led PML-N, a combination of the current opposition. Or a technocratic government. The establishment is unlikely to allow Nawaz or Maryam anywhere close to power, unless the impossible happens in Pakistan. Free and fair polls.

Second, Imran Khan will be the establishment’s sacrificial goat this Eid or that. I mean this way or that. The credibility of PTI is intrinsically linked with IK and for the party to survive, IK needs to retain some amount of it before he goes. If he does, the Pindi Boyz can perhaps repeat the game in the future once again. But it must be Punjab which will be worrying the Boyz – their IK trump card failed to break the Punjab bastion of the Sharifs.

Third, the economic mess is not going to be resolved overnight. Used to free lunches provided by the Americans, the generals cannot figure out how to go Dutch with the Chinese and the Saudis. So far, the immediate requirements meant limiting imports, higher taxes, cutting expenditure and currency stabilisation.  Sooner or later, the focus needs to shift to the fundamental determinants of the economy – export competitiveness, revenue buoyancy, trade reforms, budgetary reforms a.k.a. defence expenditure etc. Its geopolitics and internal security is defining its economy; it should be the other way around.

Fourth, the marginal utility of using terrorists as strategic assets is giving diminishing returns now. With the FATF sword hanging on its head, overt support to extremist groups is impossible. No wonder IK warns about the J-word in Kashmir. His military masters are just biding their time for the pressure to lift and then it will be business as usual. But do they have the time? With multiple fires raging, it could be too little, too late.

Fifth, the attitude of the establishment towards dissent, human rights and media freedom, and towards ethnic aspirations, does not provide comfort that things can be sorted out soon. Its likely to get far worse before it gets better. But Pakistani society has a strong and resilient DNA strain. It is this resilience that the establishment fears. The Punjabi power, the Pashtun pride, the Baloch resilience, the Sindhi intellect.


Pakistan has to make a choice about the kind of state it wants to be. Should it be business as usual or should there be a fundamental rethink? Business as usual will eventually lead it to fall into the abyss. God forbid something happens to Nawaz Sharif; or another incident like that in Khan Qamar with the PTM; or another Naqeebullah shot dead in Karachi; or another brutal attack on Baloch nationalists.

Only a fundamental rethink can save the nation. A change that brings political stability without the establishment foisting another regime through political re-engineering. A nation that opens its borders to trade and gains from globalisation. That finally upends its policy of using terrorist organisations as strategic assets and instead goes after them. And one that understands that Pakistan is a microcosm of a diverse set of languages, cultures and ethnicities.

Or else.
Politically Yours
Vivek Misra

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