As multiple crises in Pakistan come to a head, can Delhi remain a mute spectator forever? In most other countries of the subcontinent, India is drawn quickly into their internal political arguments. Delhi has always exercised some influence on the outcomes of those contestations. But Delhi has rarely been a decisive player in Pakistan’s internal politics. India’s intervention in 1971 to liberate Bangladesh — the 50th anniversary of which is round the corner — was an exception rather than the rule.
Whether it can or should make a difference to Pakistan’s internal politics, India must pay greater attention to the internal dynamics of our most difficult neighbour and more purposefully engage a diverse set of actors in that polity.
This is not the place to get into the rights and wrongs of India’s interventions in the internal affairs of its other South Asian neighbours. It is enough to note that India’s interventions are a recurring pattern in the subcontinent’s international relations. Even when Delhi is reluctant to get into the weeds of these conflicts, the competing parties in the neighbourhood demand India’s intervention on their behalf. All of the contestants, of course, resolutely oppose India’s meddling when it goes against them. If Delhi’s interventions are part of South Asian political life, why is Pakistan such an exception? Delhi’s hands-off attitude is surprising, given India’s huge stakes in the nature of Pakistan’s policies and their massive impact on regional security. Delhi is hesitant to articulate even basic interests in Pakistan in general terms, let alone take sides in its internal politics.
Indian media, which is so obsessed with covering the disputes with Pakistan, has no time for the internal politics next door. It hardly spends any resources covering the turmoil within Pakistan. India’s political classes too seem utterly disinterested in Pakistan’s domestic developments.
For Delhi, it is always about narrow political arguments with Rawalpindi and Islamabad; it is as if the people of Pakistan do not exist. This indifference is also rooted in profound pessimism — that Pakistan will never change and that there is little Delhi can do about it.
The depth of the current crises in Pakistan, however, should nudge India into overcoming this entrenched indifference. Delhi can’t forget that change is an immutable law of nature and that Pakistan is not immune to it.
Among the many challenges confronting Pakistan is the fresh breakdown in civil-military relations as Prime Minister Imran Khan bites the hand that has nurtured his rise to power. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s economy is in a tailspin as it struggles to negotiate a stabilisation package with the International Monetary Fund. The militant religious movement Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has mounted a fresh march against the capital demanding the release of its arrested leader, Saad Rizvi. Meanwhile, a coalition of opposition parties is stepping up protests to highlight the economic misery of the people; it is betting that the Imran Khan government can be pulled down well before it completes its full term two years from now.
The internal crises are sharpened by worsening external conditions. In Afghanistan, Pakistan has succeeded in restoring the Taliban to power. The celebrations have not lasted too long; the long-awaited victory is turning sour. The Arab Gulf states that have been fast friends of Pakistan are now tilting towards India. Once a favourite partner of the West, Pakistan today faces tensions in its ties with the US and Europe.
More broadly, nuclear weapons and a powerful army seem unable to stop Pakistan’s relative decline in relation to not just India but also Bangladesh. Pakistan’s economy is now 10 times smaller than that of India and is well behind Bangladesh. This trendline is unlikely to change in the near future.
A reference to these crises could easily be dismissed as wishful thinking from Indian analysts. Even the sincerest well-wisher of Pakistan, however, can’t miss the country’s dangerous downward trajectory.
For India, this is not a moment for schadenfreude. It should be an occasion to reflect on the long-term regional consequences of Pakistan’s internal turbulence. Many in Delhi would dismiss the cause for such concern. They would point to Pakistan’s survival skills. After all, Pakistan’s journey since independence has been a dangerous one marked by unending near-death situations. Pakistan has certainly endured.
Some would point to Pakistan’s enormous political luck in finding external patrons eager to bail it out for geopolitical reasons. While the US and Saudi Arabia have done this in the past, they don’t appear as enthusiastic today.
Some would continue to bet that China could still save its all-weather friend Pakistan from hurtling down the abyss. Until now at least, the Chinese seem tight-fisted in comparison to the West, which was generous to a fault when it came to Pakistan. There is also a growing frustration among Islamabad’s friends that there is little that they can do if the Pakistani state has no will or capability to get its act together.
The key to Pakistan’s near future may lie in the manner in which the current tensions between Army Chief General Qamar Jawed Bajwa and PM Khan are resolved.
Problems between the army and the political leaders have indeed been endemic in Pakistan’s history. They acquired a particular intensity in the last few years as the previous prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, sought to assert himself on key issues relating to Pakistan’s support for Islamic militants.
The army hounded Nawaz Sharif out of power and in the elections that took place in 2018, it installed Imran Khan as the prime minister by stitching together a majority coalition for his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). It was widely assumed that the deal between the army and Imran Khan would bring stability and efficiency to policy-making in a badly-governed Pakistan.
For once the army had someone different from the jaded mainstream politicians to work with. Imran’s popularity with the younger generation and his promise to create a Naya Pakistan seemed just the right formula, one that the army needed. Three years later, this so-called hybrid regime is in tatters and civil-military relations are back in crisis mode.
This round began earlier this month with the army announcing several transfers of four-star generals, including the ISI Chief General Faiz Hameed. But Imran Khan has been reluctant to let the ISI chief go. What should have been a routine change has now become a battle of wills between General Bajwa and Premier Khan.
Imran has made bold to challenge the paramount authority of the army chief. While the GHQ is quite capable of pulling down the Imran government, the PM is turning to religious mobilisation to secure his flanks. How this plays out will be of special interest to Delhi. Sceptics will, however, say the differences within the Pakistani establishment on the policy towards India are tactical and, therefore, not consequential.
Realists might concede that unlike elsewhere in the neighbourhood, Delhi’s leverage in Pakistan’s politics is terribly limited. But it is by no means negligible. After all, India looms so large in Pakistan’s mind space. For Delhi, it may be worth trying to turn that into influence over Pakistan’s policies if only at the tactical level and at the margins.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 26, 2021 under the title ‘The tumult next door’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express