Home/ Opinion / Views/  Pakistan’s triangular power play makes it a tinderbox

Imran Khan’s recent arrest in Pakistan and the subsequent cancellation of his arrest warrant constitute a new episode in the country’s triangular power play. 

In one corner is the Pakistan Army, which considers itself the best custodian of the state’s interests, protecting it from external enemies and internal chaos. This “internal chaos", according to the army and its supporters, manifests in the country’s traditional political parties – the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), led by the Sharif brothers, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by the Bhuttos. These are in the second corner. In the third corner is the upstart, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by the mercurial Khan.

Khan’s mix of populist politics, religious mien, hypernationalism and personal charisma have turned the old duel between the army and the traditional political parties into a three-way fight.

Though it is alleged that the PTI itself was created by the army as a ploy to keep democratically elected parties in check, Khan has accused former army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa of plotting his murder, of attacks against PTI men, of offering favours to members of other political parties, and of lobbying against him with the United States. 

The assassination attempt on Khan last November by a supposed drug addict has worsened the situation. Along the way, Khan has built up a more credible image than the other parties have on challenging the Pakistan Army.

The army appears for the moment to be keeping a low profile, given the country’s economic situation and negotiations for bailouts from international agencies and other countries. But the civilian government, led by the PML, has continued its attacks on Khan. The government’s legal measures against Khan are one way in which the traditional parties are responding to the challenge to their electoral base posed by Khan and his PTI. 

There are nearly a 100 cases filed against Khan, accusing him of a range of crimes from corruption to sponsoring violence to terrorism. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has accused him of “fascist and militant tendencies" and attempts “to intimidate the judiciary" in a tweet.  

In another tweet, Sharif even seemed to be currying favour with the army by criticising the PTI for its “disgusting smear campaign against Chief of the Army Staff General Asim Munir", testifying to the abiding importance of Pakistan’s military as a swing factor if not kingmaker in the country’s politics.

But all of this “reeks of desperation" as the prominent Pakistani daily Dawn put it. The political and institutional challenges – such as pressure on the judiciary – posed by Khan and his supporters are unlikely to be tackled by what will be perceived as vendetta politics.

Pakistan’s dire economic straits, poor international image and fed-up population have allowed Khan to cast himself in the light of a saviour, fighting both the army and traditional parties. Whether he actually has cogent political and economic policies to tackle the country’s myriad internal and external challenges is another matter altogether. 

Khan’s radical politics and surging popularity of recent years challenge not only the Pakistan Army and the country’s traditional political parties, but also India and other concerned external powers. For New Delhi, already at a loose end with respect to the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, one more populist and radicalized regime in the neighbourhood, especially with a large population, not to mention nuclear weapons, should be a matter of concern. 

This concern should cause New Delhi’s policymaking elites to think up radically different approaches to Pakistan and devise ways of conducting outreach and diplomacy that can either nip these challenges in the bud or at the very least mitigate them.

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Updated: 22 Mar 2023, 01:17 PM IST
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