Pakistani polls, India’s stakes

India and Pakistan observe each other’s national elections with much interest because national government formation means policy review and reformulation, which, in their mutual context, involve the handling of the none-too-peaceful relations between the two countries. Pakistan has the advantage because of India’s transparent, tested and respected democratic process through which transition occurs and yet brings near-continuity in policy. For India, there is nothing predictable or transparent about Pakistan with even the outcome of the electoral process contingent upon the Pakistan Army’s interests. With the upcoming elections on July 25, 2018, there should be much interest among Pakistan-watchers as the juncture is critical, with several events and trends occurring simultaneously.

Interestingly, in less than two weeks of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey-listing Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed, the head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) has made it known that a couple of hundred candidates owing allegiance to JuD will participate in the election. His earlier attempt at political legitimacy by forming the Muslim Milli League (MML) had come a cropper as it was turned down by the Pakistan Election Commission. He has now entered into an agreement between MML, the front group, and Allah-O-Akbar Tehreek, an Islamist party on whose back MML will ride. Almost on the day of the FATF meeting, Pakistan also removed Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the head of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), from the designated terror list, clearing it hereafter to also participate in the elections. The ASWJ is another front for the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a virulently anti-Shia group, which is banned and was targeted under Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad. Historically, the Pakistani electorate has never inclined itself towards supporting any of the radical Islamic groups in the past. Is there a change in the offing? There has been little commentary in India on the orientation of Pakistan’s civil society which is known to be extremely weak, pliable and incapable of dictating any discourse for the future. Judging by the turn out at various sit-downs to paralyse the government in the recent past and the quality of people who thronged there, it did appear that the ghost of Mumtaz Qadri (the radical Islamist killer of late Punjab Governor Salman Taseer) continues to rule the roost. A different result at the polls could thus be on the cards. That could also be at the behest of the Pakistani Army and possibly even the higher judiciary.

How has the above situation come to be? It was clear that the Generals were unhappy with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif whose agenda of peace with India and promotion of trade was not in congruence with the Pakistan Army’s intent. The latter’s ambition and aim since 1977 (the coming of Zia-ul-Haq) has been to seek retribution against India through means foul or fair. Pakistan-friendly terror organisations such as the LeT (JuD) have been and continue to remain strategic assets that calibrate a hybrid proxy war against India especially in J&K, with intent to wrest the latter. The two mainstream parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) may have earlier played ball with the Army but have usually been reluctant partners. The infamous ISI and a pliable higher judiciary ensured Sharif’s downfall and eventual ban. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) even without a national presence is now willing to play along with the Army in the next experiment. The shortfall in national political mainstream footprint is being probably attempted through fillers such as the radical political parties. Husain Haqqani puts it across as – “Their approach is similar to the one used to advance Sharif’s career against Benazir Bhutto in the late 1980s and early 1990s”.

Pragmatic political assessment points at a potential victory of PML-N with reduced numbers but various other activities on the political canvas of Pakistan appear to point towards an Army-assisted PTI victory. Imran Khan is willing to bend over backwards to arrange that. The Pakistani media, otherwise splendidly pro-active and critical, has been under intense pressure. The leading newspaper Dawn has been banned from various military garrisons.

Government and commercial advertising has also been withheld from many media houses, under pressure.

So what should India expect? First, whatever be the election results, it will be the Pakistani army in charge, even more than ever before. In India we had assessed a Qamar Bajwa-led Pakistani army being more rationale and setting the stage for a better environment; the much-touted Bajwa Doctrine. Instead, Pakistan is set to become a basket case; the second borrowing of a billion US dollars from China has just been done to bail it out from the financial mess it finds itself in. Earlier at least, Sharif somewhat resisted the Army pressure and recently even questioned the reasons why Mumbai was attacked and its chief perpetrator not prosecuted. With Imran Khan, the radicals and the Pakistan Army/ISI in the deep state will find new constituents and sink to even greater depth. How much backing this has from China is not known but it will surely be unhappy to see the entry of more radicals and a greater instability, although debt-trap diplomacy is almost assured over the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Hare-brained and crazy ideas have emanated from Pakistan in the past even when mainstream political parties with a semblance of political control existed. Now with a potentially deadly combination guiding the nation’s future, Pakistan appears headed for hara-kiri both externally and internally. The US should be worried, as should be Russia and Iran. Entrapped in debt, Pakistan will be vulnerable to manipulation by the Saudis who internally may project new moderation but externally the hemming of Iran from the East through radical Sunni ideology is too tempting. J&K in turmoil, fuelled by radical ideology, remains vulnerable with more violence on the cards. The one hope on which sanity can still rely is the feasibility of free elections under the Pakistan Election Commission and the choice of the Pakistani electorate remaining what it always was, non-radical parties; notwithstanding the popularity of the army. In a real world that is hoping against hope.

The author commanded the 15 Corps in Jammu and Kashmir. Views expressed are personal.

* Originally Published in DNA India on July 7, 2018