Unpredictability marks most political developments in Islamabad, but a constitutional crisis of the current proportion has not been witnessed for some time

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

A nuclear armed nation in political turmoil is something the world is extremely wary of. This is especially so if the nation has a history of political violence, fractious politics, frequent takeover of the administration by the Army and factions within the force as well. The turn of events in Islamabad should not surprise ardent Pakistan watchers. Unpredictability marks most political developments there, but a constitutional crisis of the current proportion has not been witnessed for some time. Analysing and writing on such a situation is itself a challenge as there is nothing certain about the turn of events.

It’s good to get the background clear. Pakistan has a history of either Army rule or in recent years Army-controlled governments with foreign and security policy firmly in the hands of the generals; there exists the proverbial Deep State, which also comprises the intelligence community, some elements of the judiciary and even rich and influential businessmen. Self-aggrandisement is the philosophy of all actions of the Deep State. For years, Pakistan alternated between governments of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N), with the Army as the kingmaker. There were two issues the Army wished to follow as a part of its security agenda for promotion of its domination: first, an anti-India stance and second, a promotion of radical Islam that it felt benefitted the nation in many ways. The PPP and PML(N) leaderships continued to follow the diktat of the Army, albeit with some resistance from time to time. An urge to improve relations with India for the sake of trade and other economic benefits was never acceptable to the Army, which pursued the separatist agenda in J&K as well. The long period of existence with the agenda of radical Islam, severe corruption and refusal of leeway to the political parties led to the final cleavage between the Army and the PPP and PML(N). The only viable party with an untested record of governance was Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which had earlier won a majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the 2018 general elections, the PTI became the favoured party and Imran received the backing of the Army to become the ‘selected PM’, leading a coalition government. It’s been in place since then, becoming progressively more anti-India, especially after the Balakot airstrike by India in February 2019 and the amendment of Article 370 by our Parliament. Imran Khan, popular in India for his cricketing skills and a regular at most cricket matches and Bollywood events, suddenly turned radical in outlook with a decided anti-India attitude. He refused to rein in the radical Islamic parties that frequently rule Pakistan’s politics and its streets.

In all three spheres of governance that matter, the PTI and Imran Khan progressively stumbled. The most serious of these was the financial mismanagement of Pakistan’s economy, commencing with the sacking of Atif Mian, the much respected Princeton economist who was a member of the Economic Advisory Council. Atif Mian was a Qadiani and Imran wilted under pressure from radical clerics in his own party. In four years, the economy has only gone from bad to worse; the proverbial begging bowl becoming Pakistan’s symbol. It’s no better in foreign relations with old time links like Saudi Arabia and UAE, the two highly influential states within the Islamic world, also falling on bad times. Uncertainty of economic assistance from China, little progress on the CPEC and constant issues on the security of Chinese workers haven’t exactly led to any great achievements in the easiest of domains—the Sino-Pakistan relationship. Lately, it appears better, especially after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke recently at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Foreign Ministers meeting at Islamabad. The third area of importance is internal security, which may have shown statistical improvement but the culture of protests and street turbulence continues, much to the Army’s chagrin. Lately, Bajwa had to speak at the Islamabad Security Dialogue about Pakistan’s strong US link as Imran Khan had alleged US involvement in a plot to unseat him.

It may not have been a problem for the PTI government to continue in the current mode for a year or more, except for the case of Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, the former DG ISI who General Bajwa wanted to post as Corps Commander Peshawar. Imran Khan wanted him to continue as DG ISI. Hameed, with ambitions of succeeding Bajwa, wanted his proximity to Imran Khan to continue. Things came to a head on this issue; General Bajwa’s own ambition of a third term continues to be significant in the power politics of Pakistan. Hameed finally moved to Peshawar but is reported to be the centre of an anti-Bajwa faction within the Army, ready to divide the force for his ambition.

Perhaps it’s the Army that did not want more of Imran Khan, given his failure on every significant front. The Opposition unity involving the PPP, PML(N) and Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman’s Jamait Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) has been ensured by the Army with the intent of alternatives, but Imran has fought back by appointing PML(Q) Chief Pervez Elahi as Punjab Chief Minister instead of his own protege and then incumbent CM Usman Buzdar. A new governor has also been appointed to appease some of the parties that are supposedly yet supporting him.

Imran Khan promised to fight to the end when he was cornered in an impending no-confidence vote and upset the apple cart by recommending to the President that the National Assembly be dissolved and fresh elections be ordered. He would otherwise have been unseated, the first Pakistan PM to be defeated in the house. The case went to the Supreme Court and awaits its decision. He has quoted an international conspiracy theory against Pakistan to justify his recommendation.

It is surprising that Imran did not keep history in mind while acting as he did. Pakistan PMs tend to come back several times even after the Army has found them unacceptable at certain stages. By invoking issues and allegations that could result in charges of treason against him, Imran has opened up a Pandora’s box in a nation where PMs have been known to have been executed. Living to fight another day would have been a better option instead of tangling with the Pakistan Army. Pakistan appears ripe for much more in the weeks to come. All eyes are on the Supreme Court and a potential rollback to test Opposition strength could well be on the cards.