Army Puppet Or Own Man, Imran Khan Is Going To Make No Difference To India
Imran Khan has called for peace, and talks on Kashmir. We should give him as much talk as possible, and the army can be asked to reduce incidents on the border, but we cannot assume that anything dramatic will happen to ensure long-term peace with our western neighbour.
Much of the hyperventilation in the Indian media over Imran Khan’s rise to the Prime Ministership of Pakistan is off the mark, if not plain illogical.
In the recent elections to the National Assembly, Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), undoubtedly aided by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistani army, emerged as the single-largest party, but well short of a majority. It will, however, be in a position to form the government with help from smaller parties. Khan has already given a statement indicating he is taking over the reins of power.
Since Khan has been on an India- and Modi-bashing spree for the last couple of years, and his party has mainstreamed Islamic extremism in terms of its rhetoric (read here, here, here), and he is additionally seen to be the Pakistan army’s frontman, he is deemed to be worse than Nawaz Sharif.
The problem with this assumption is that it is a bit of a contradiction in terms.
First, it is no secret that it is the Pakistan army which calls the shots in three areas – defence and strategic affairs, Kashmir, and foreign affairs, especially relationships with India, China and the US in particular. So how does it matter whether the next Pakistani Prime Minister is a puppet of the army or a free bird when it comes to setting policy in these areas?
Second, most policy mistakes from the Indian end happen because we try and talk to the elected head of Pakistan’s government, when it is the army which takes the final call on where incremental changes are allowed, and at what pace. In this scenario, isn’t it more likely that a puppet may deliver peace better than someone else? And if Imran Khan is not quite a puppet, how can India do any deal with him, since it will mean policy dissonance between Rawalpindi and Islamabad? Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Lahore bus trip led to Kargil, and Narendra Modi’s initial bonhomie with Nawaz Sharif did not go down well with army headquarters, and Sharif was duly sent packing. Through a judicial coup, where the Panama accounts of Sharif and his daughter were used to disqualify him from contesting the elections, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) has now been sidelined.
Third, the reality of Pakistan transcends the personal preferences and political inclinations of the persons who head the army or the political establishment. The army in Pakistan has first claim on state resources, runs several commercial enterprises and gives its retiring generals and top officers large benefits on retirement – most of which is a state secret. The army runs 50 commercial establishments with a turnover of over $20 billion at last count, and even that could well be an underestimate.
When the army has a vested interest in controlling so much of the wealth and the national budget, it is foolhardy to believe that it will allow a civilian to dictate state policy when enmity to India is the key to its own grip on power. Consider this reality: every Pakistani army chief, from Zia ul-Haq to Pervez Musharraf to the current Gen Qamar Jawed Bajwa, was appointed by prime ministers on the assumption that they would be more supportive of the political establishment when needed. But all of them went against the elected governments which appointed them when they undertook policies the army was displeased with.
The larger point is this: it does not matter who the prime minister of Pakistan is, nor even who the chief of the Pakistani army is. Their own personal approach to India or Kashmir can change nuances, and bring some temporary respite on the border, but the interests of the military-industrial-jihadi system will always prevail. No army chief or political head can make a viable peace with India on his own.
The army also has a longer-term issue with the PML(N) for a simple reason: both derive their power from Punjab, and thus if one gains the other loses. In this election, the army has ensured that the PML(N) is weakened in its bastion.
For India, the takeout is simple: be open to talks, which at least improves the optics of peace, but never assume that there is going to be any change in Pakistan’s policies that will benefit both countries. In particular, one should not expect any change in Pakistan’s overall hostility to India, including the regular pushing of jihadis into Kashmir.
Put differently, Pakistan will extend a tentative hand of friendship only when it is against the ropes, and needs a breather on the Indian front.
The current scenario may be one such occasion, with the Pakistani economy now headed towards external bankruptcy, with less than two months’ import requirements covered by foreign exchange reserves. Since December 2017, the country has devalued its currency three times, and Imran Khan may need to approach the IMF for another bailout, the last one two years ago having yielded little.
Less than 1 per cent of Pakistanis pay taxes, and while exports are doing better due to the devaluations, the trade deficit is ballooning out of control due to a simultaneous import surge. The Pakistani state is more or less broke, between feeding its army and its failure to collect enough revenues from citizens.
Given this precarious economic scenario, the army cannot afford to swallow up more resources in the short run, and it is also preoccupied with its own out-of-control jihadi infrastructure. It faces an insurgency in Balochistan and suicide bomb attacks elsewhere – with two happening in July itself, killing scores of civilians. It needs to focus on containing the terrorists within.
For India, Pakistani belligerence may well be temporarily lower than before, and this has nothing to do with the milk of human kindness suddenly coursing through its body politic, either through the efforts of Imran Khan or the army. Khan has called for peace, and talks on Kashmir. We should give him as much talk as possible, and the army can be asked to reduce incidents on the border, but we cannot assume that anything dramatic will happen to ensure long-term peace with our western neighbour.
As long as Pakistan has Islamism in its DNA, it will not be at peace either with itself or with us. This is our karma, and we have to learn to deal with it without getting too carried away by euphoria or despondency.
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