A silver lining for India in Pakistan's political drama replay

Supporters of Pakistani former Prime Minister Imran Khan's party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), block the Peshawar-Islamabad motorway as part of their protest against the results of the general election, in Peshawar, Pakistan, February 12, 2024. (Photo: Reuters)
Supporters of Pakistani former Prime Minister Imran Khan's party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), block the Peshawar-Islamabad motorway as part of their protest against the results of the general election, in Peshawar, Pakistan, February 12, 2024. (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

  • Over the past decade, even as Pakistan's diplomatic capital and global relevance have shrunk, New Delhi’s have only increased

The people of Pakistan appear to have spoken – if not resoundingly enough, at least loudly – against the army's overwhelming dominance in the country's politics.

However, with the recent election results returning a hung parliament, it seems the Pakistan Army remains influential regardless of the popular verdict. Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was banned from contesting the polls, yet he managed enough popular support to have over 100 ‘independents’ elected to the Pakistan Assembly, surpassing the numbers for both his rival parties - Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

It's expected that the Pakistan Army will encourage the PML-N and PPP to come to some sort of an agreement, reminiscent of their cooperation following Khan’s removal in 2022, with a few independents included. However, Khan's ability to overcome the several institutional hurdles placed in his way over the past year and more to still emerge as the most popular political actor in Pakistan indicates a potential decline in the army's influence over the country's politics.

Any government without Khan at the helm will likely struggle to gain public trust and to carry out the necessary economic reforms and stabilize diplomatic relations, which are crucial for Islamabad.

Having first to come to power on the back of army's support, Khan had soon turned against his benefactors believing his mass popularity would be enough to insulate him from further machinations of Pakistan’s deep state. However, this wasn't sufficient to keep him in office, though it did fuel significant unrest, including protests targeting the army.

Khan's enduring popularity and his approach to politics reflect a global trend towards populism. Lack of moderation in political speech and action, and his inability to govern have been key elements of his political career so far. The recent election results, more favourable for him than expected, are likely to embolden him further, promising continued domestic political turmoil.

The situation is unlikely to be much different for Islamabad's foreign policy front. Even ‘all-weather friend’ China has been losing patience not just on the security front within Pakistan but at the inability of the country’s political class to enact any meaningful economic reforms. Chinese citizens have been regularly attacked and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has not progressed to the satisfaction of either the Pakistanis or the Chinese.

Beijing has also become increasingly confident of reaching past Rawalpindi to Taliban-led Afghanistan while Iran’s decision last month to launch drone strikes against insurgents in Pakistan’s Balochistan province is a reminder of tensions on another of Pakistan’s borders.

Given Pakistan's economic woes and the global context, one might expect a more cautious foreign policy. Yet, Khan and certain elements within Pakistan's deep state have consistently maintained a confrontational stance towards India and Western democracies. The current political landscape, marked by a hung parliament, will hinder any attempts at an outreach or breaking the ice with India amid an environment where political parties are likely to engage in competitive nationalism. It could also further isolate Pakistan internationally.

What then of India’s approach towards its western neighbour? Is India in a position to exploit the situation?

In a decade in power, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has cycled through several phases in its approaches to Pakistan – from attempts at bonhomie, through anger and kinetic responses to terror strikes on Indian soil. In this period, even as Pakistan's diplomatic capital and global relevance have shrunk, New Delhi’s have only increased. Its attention on external security and diplomatic fronts has also shifted decisively away from Pakistan towards China for all practical purposes.

These reasons apart, India's current diplomatic leaders are both wary and weary of Pakistan, given the repeated failures to bridge differences, particularly over Kashmir. Under the circumstances and even without it being an election year in India, any peace initiatives from Pakistan's government or army are likely to be met with skepticism in New Delhi, if not ignored altogether. As long as Pakistan remains focused on its internal problems though, that should suit India just fine.

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