The national assembly of Pakistan has completed a full five-year term for the first time in the country’s history. This is a significant development in the country’s political evolution but does it mean that the possibility of the army taking over the reins of government is over?
Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf asserted so during an address to his country. He said, “Democracy is now so strong that nobody will stage an ambush on it”. He also claimed that a sinister chapter has been closed.
The generals in Rawalpindi would have smiled at the Prime Minister’s brave words. They know that while a military takeover will be much more difficult and messy than in the past, the country and the international community will, after some drama and much rhetoric, accept it. For many, both within and outside Pakistan, the army remains the only responsible institution in a country with nuclear weapons and growing jihadi violence. This is notwithstanding increasing Islamist tendencies within the army and its continuing reliance on select jihadi groups as instruments of state.
In any event, the generals will never give up total control over the security policies of Pakistan and they will always have a decisive say in all matters relating to India.
Pakistan’s constitution prescribes that elections be held under an independent caretaker regime. President Asif Ali Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif are jockeying to get a person of their choice to head this regime. The army, from behind the scenes, is no doubt taking interest in the appointment to ensure that the caretaker government and the election commission can organize credible elections.
The politicians will be able to compromise on a person and the ensuing elections will be reasonably fair.
It is early to forecast results but the electoral battle will really be a contest between the established parties which are extensions of political families or individuals. They have the biradari networks and the outreach which are crucial in Pakistani elections. (Biradari is more or less to Pakistani politics what caste is in India). Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML(N), under the Sharif brothers, will be the principal contestants. Other parties that matter are the PML (Q) of the Chaudhry’s of Gujrat in the Punjab, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement under the London-based Altaf Hussain and the Awami National Party, which adheres to old Pukhtoon traditions amid the challenge of the jihadis in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
What of Imran Khan? It is widely believed that the army, uncomfortable with the principal political actors, had sought to build him up. He has drawn crowds but it is unlikely that he will be able to make a major impact on the elections.
Some Pakistani analysts feel that Nawaz Sharif has an edge over Zardari. His base in the Punjab, by far the most important province, is strong. He has good links with the Islamist parties and has shown political stamina. In contrast, Zardari, out of the shadow of Benazir Bhutto, has displayed remarkable political skills and ability to manoeuvre over the past five years. He shrewdly handled an assertive supreme court and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani too. The fact that the general is reclusive, and had to remain focused on Afghanistan as well as on the direct threats of some jihadi groups to the Pakistani state, helped Zardari. The army also had to deal with the fallout of the US action in Abbottabad which led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
Zardari managed Pakistani politics with great dexterity. He broke all conventions by continuing as co-chairman of the PPP even as the President of Pakistan. The Lahore high court has now directed him to desist from taking part in politics but this judicial intervention has come too late. Thus in the world of realpolitik the credit for the national assembly completing its term goes to him.
Two members of the triumvirate that presided over Pakistan and who shaped the country’s domestic affairs will depart this year. Chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry retires in December and general Kayani will complete his extended term in September. Zardari’s term also comes to an end in September and his re-election as president will depend on the results in the general election.
Individuals at the helm of affairs matter in all countries but more so in those with weak institutions. Thus, the direction which the country takes and, especially the future of the fledgling democratic process, will depend on the inclinations of the people who replace the present trio.
These changes and the elections make the current year fluid and complex particularly as they will happen amid continuing jihadi and sectarian violence and the growth of sharper religious ideologies which seek to replace the accommodative traditions of Islam followed by a majority of Pakistani Muslims.
At this juncture, it is important for Indian policymakers to look at Pakistan realistically and keep their eyes on the true decisionmakers—the generals—instead of focusing on what will happen in the election. We have to engage the Pakistani political class but also need to be aware of its lack of influence in issues that matter to us. We should also engage Pakistani liberals and civil society, such as it exists, but we cannot help them; they have to fight their own battles.
For the foreseeable future the existing issues—terrorism, Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek—will define the relationship. To these, Pakistan is adding alleged water disputes. The opening on trade offered a ray of hope but the army wishes to control that door as well.
The prognosis on the future of India-Pakistan relations cannot be optimistic.
Vivek Katju was joint secretary in charge of the Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan division in the ministry of external affairs. He also served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan.