By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)
Pakistan is at a crossroads. What is new about this? The difference is that it is at a crossroads where it has choices to make. It has to decide if it remains an Army with a country or becomes a country with an Army. Imran Khan has brought it to a stage where Pakistan has to decide for itself which way it wants to go. Whichever way it goes there are consequences for itself, its allies and for India.
Naya Pakistan is a well-known paradox. It is a nuclear armed country with an outsized Army nested in an increasingly radicalised society. It is also an impoverished debt ridden nation beset with a stagnant economy, food insecurity, sky high inflation, a burgeoning population with low agricultural yields facing an imminent climate catastrophe. This paradox will not change irrespective of the outcome and fall out of the political chaos into which Pakistan is descending due to the assassination attempt on Imran Khan. Having said this, the chaos at the cross roads is worth pondering on. There are multiple drivers who want to jump the redlight and head into their sunsets.
The first driver of the chaos is Pakistan’s history. It started with the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan, the country’s first prime minister. It continued with hangings, bombings, mid-air explosions, exiles and the countless coups which dot Pakistan’s gory landscape. It consumed many leaders including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Ziaul Haq, and Benazir Bhutto to name a few. This chaotic history has driven Pakistan into a labyrinth of violent lanes. This overarching backdrop can never be wished away in Pakistan.
The second driver is Imran Khan, the born-again Muslim with a mission to lead his jihad in a fight against evil. He is the self-professed good which is leading Pakistan into an imaginary Riyasat-e-Madina. Anyone opposed to his concept of good is branded as evil. He is piqued that the Sharifs, Bhuttos and the Zardaris have ousted him illegally and formed an “Imported Sarkar” at the behest of USA, aided and abetted by Gen Bajwa and his “Neutrals”. His sole aim is to force elections in which he alone can re-emerge as a winner and take Pakistan to glory. There is no doubt that he is immensely popular and is now a leader of Pakistan’s masses. His near clean sweep of recent by-elections and his charisma as a world cup winning captain give him an invincible aura. Immediately after the assassination attempt, Imran Khan blamed Shabaz Sharif, Rana Sanaullah and a Maj Gen of ISI directly for the attempt on his life and has sought their resignation. In doing so , he has thrown the gauntlet down to the Army directly. In painting a parallel between his situation and that of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and his Awami League in 1971 he has injected the spectre of Pakistan’s break up, into popular imagination, if he is denied his rightful place and status. Imran Khan’s brush with death and his miraculous survival, thanks to Allah’s mercy, has made him a living martyr. He now believes he lives for the sole god given purpose of delivering Pakistan from the corrupt mafia which has looted his country. He offers a visage to his countrymen where he will guide them to growth, development and happiness once he replaces the imported Sarkar through the ballot. It does not matter that his visage of a progressive Pakistan is a hollow mirage. His earlier effort at carving a Naya Pakistan took Pakistan to a situation in which Purana Pakistan seemed a Jannat. It also does not matter that he was a hybrid creation for backseat rule by the Army. He is the Aladdin’s genie, which has escaped the bottle and has grown more powerful than the Army. In this process he has implicitly bracketed the Army as part of the problem which Pakistan is burdened with and has sold it to the masses. This assassination attempt, irrespective of who has masterminded it, has catapulted him into a messiah status. This is evident from the public reactions and demonstrations across the nation including in front of residences of senior army officers. As and when Imran Khan comes to power, we will see Pakistan in a back to the future situation. Naya Pakistan 2.0 under Imran Khan will have to survive without the largesse of USA or China. He will single handedly ensure Pakistan regresses to unseen lows. That has been his track record.
The third driver is the Pakistan Army and its greedy generals who have had an out of proportion influence in running the country since independence. They have led privileged lives and accumulated wealth at the expense of the people for 75 years. Most importantly, they have sold to the people of Pakistan that they are the sole guarantors of the safety, security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation against India which they have painted as an existential threat in perpetuity. They have been the ultimate arbiters of power in Pakistan. They have kept the country in conflict for the best of its existence through imaginary threats. In doing so, they have never allowed or given even a half-decent chance to any civilian to run the country. In between coups and long bouts of military rule, the generals have decapacitated Pakistan economically, made it into a mercenary for the highest bidder and a purveyor of international terror. In the process, they have selected, deposed, exiled, hung, and assassinated PMs at their will. Imran Khan was selected and made to head a hybrid government in order to circumvent international opprobrium. The experiment soured. At this juncture, the Pakistan Army faces multiple issues and is probably at its weakest politically. Their COAS is due to change. They also feel and face international pressure of not getting back to martial law. Further there is a divided opinion in the Army regarding Imran Khan since many sense an opportunity in his ascent. Overall, Imran Khan has stolen their narrative of being the saviours of the nation. Suddenly they are on the defensive. With Imran Khan bowling his best swinging bouncers, for the first time since 1971, the Army is ducking. However, going by past history, the Army is a formidable instrument with fingers in many lucrative pies. Giving up goodies and submitting to Khan is not an option at present. If that happens, Pakistan would have changed forever.
The fourth driver is the elite of Pakistan who have lost their mass following. These are the Bhuttos, Zardaris, Shariffs, Junejos and other motley politicians who are essentially feudal landlords. They will do anything to sustain their feudal and political heredity. They will connive to stay in power by playing second fiddle to the Army in order to keep their political opponents at bay. Similarly, the judiciary, police, election commission and huge swathes of the bureaucracy have a lot to lose if a political maverick like Imran Khan comes into power on his own steam. They have lined up behind the Army unambiguously since they have lost mass following. For all of them, it is better to be in the second rung of power under the Army than be in political wilderness. However, some of them will hop over to Imran Khan if the opportunity arises.
The fifth set of drivers in Pakistan are the religious fundamentalists and the Taliban. Much of this mass of bigoted population is the pool of from which the Army ISI combine draws its terrorist cadres. However, equally, there are many in this mass like the Taliban who are fully prepared to take on the Army to meet their ends. This segment of Pakistani society will align itself with Imran Khan if and when the time comes. It is not for nothing that Imran Khan was once called the Taliban Khan.
Where do these drivers head from the cross roads? Imran will not be deterred. He is beyond fearing martial law. He will continue to pillory the imported government and the neutrals of the Army in public. He will take his long marches and revolution forward till he gets to dismantle the current government and comes into power. The Army has also come out with a statement that “The baseless and irresponsible allegations by chairman PTI against the institution and particularly a senior army officer are absolutely unacceptable and uncalled for.” There was a ban on Imran Khan’s speeches which was hastily revoked. The Sharif government is in panic. The battle lines are clearly drawn.
In this chaos, one issue has emerged. Elections cannot be fixed in Pakistan anymore. Indications are that Imran Khan will come back despite all the legal hurdles being put in place. If Imran Khan comes back with the power of a ballot, he will attempt to confine the army to its barracks. That is a difficult proposition. However, it is also difficult for the Army to rein in Imran Khan any more. The assassination attempt complicates the pitch for the Army. The needle of suspicion will point firmly towards the Army, if there are any future attacks on Imran Khan.
The stakes in Pakistan are quite high. Imran Khan and the Army will do their best to make the other fail. There is a long way to go. So where do the roads go from the cross roads? Martial law under a new COAS or Bajwa in a new avatar? A clean assassination of Imran Khan flowed by business as usual? A brokered peace and another hybrid government? Continue with the present government backed by the Army and a new COAS? Elections, followed by Imran as PM with his selected COAS ? All options will lead Pakistan nowhere since all of them do not address the first and permanent driver in Pakistan. The best option for Pakistan in the long run is probably elections followed by Imran as PM with his selected COAS. It might ensure that the Pakistan ultimately becomes a country with an Army. There is also the danger that Imran’s selected COAS might depose him one fine morning in the best traditions of Pakistan.
What do we do in India?
I have always opined that the best Pakistan for India is one which is inward looking. The forces in Pakistan have generated a great option for us to “Do Nothing” except concentrate on building up our strengths. Let’s do that!
The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @ www.gunnersshot.com.
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