It is strange that the momentous political developments currently unfolding in Pakistan have barely registered here in India. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) was formed in September by the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Fazal-ur-Rehman, but constituted by 11 political parties, representing virtually the country’s entire political spectrum. It has brought together the two mainstream but rival political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Bilawal Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) led by the exiled Nawaz Sharif, but currently headed by his daughter Maryam. More significantly, the PDM has also given a national platform to regional parties and provincial leaders from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who have been targeted by the Pakistani military for demanding regional autonomy and an end to repression.
This is the first time that the Punjabi heartland was listening to voices from the periphery and connecting with its hitherto marginalised people. This is an important development in itself. The PDM has so far held three massive political rallies, in Pakistani Panjab’s Gujranwala on October 18, in Karachi two days later, and in Quetta on October 25. A certain political momentum has been generated and is gathering strength and this could trigger significant changes in the nature of the Pakistani state and how it engages with the outside world, including India.
The political inclusivity that the PDM represents is both its strength and its weakness. It has politically isolated Prime Minister Imran Khan and, therefore, undermined the credibility of his powerful military backers. That he has managed to inspire such disparate parties to come together on the same platform to oppose him, speaks to his incompetence. But in demanding his ouster, the PDM’s real target is the powerful military.
In his speech broadcast from London, Nawaz Sharif explicitly accused the Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and the ISI chief Faiz Hameed as responsible for rigging the last elections and installing Imran Khan as prime minister. This is a frontal attack on the army and if allowed to snowball, it has the potential of eroding its overpowering influence in the country’s politics. In the past, the army has been able to manipulate political parties and leaders, playing off one against the other. If the coalition holds together, this tried-and-tested playbook may not work. But while the PDM has come together to oust Imran Khan, it does not seem to have a game plan for the day after.
How do they propose to bring the military to heel? What kind of federal structure could be put in place to address the deep grievances of smaller provinces and ethnic groups? At what point would the movement consider its mission accomplished and revert to competitive politics, which is the essence of parliamentary democracy? How do the PDM leaders propose to tackle the acute economic crisis that Pakistan is facing, compounded by the pandemic? On all these and other key issues, the disparate nature of the group may preclude even a broad convergence.
The Pakistani Army may believe that given these contradictions within the PDM, it may be best to let it roll on and then dissipate. If that were indeed to happen, then the military would end up even more entrenched than it already is. It is possible that the PDM may continue to gather popular strength and support and this may be seen as an existential threat by the army. It may resort to violent repression and assume power frontally as has happened in the past. This could add to Pakistan’s external isolation, particularly if a Democratic administration takes office in Washington. However, China, which has deep and longstanding relations with the Pakistani Army, will continue to provide it political shield and economic support. A weak Pakistani military or one which is forced to return to the barracks does not suit China, even though Pakistani civilian governments have also given priority to the relationship.
As a liberal democracy, India would normally welcome the emergence of the PDM and its struggle to establish a truly civilian democracy in Pakistan. A diminished political salience of the Pakistani military could only be a positive development from India’s point of view. Unfortunately, the PDM leaders had harsh words to say about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and bracketed Imran Khan with him. Imran was accused of complicity in “selling out” Kashmir. Just as Pakistan has become a ploy in India’s domestic politics, so is India on the way to performing a similar role in Pakistani politics. Not long ago, we had marvelled at the fact that in the Pakistani elections in 2013, which brought Nawaz Sharif to power, India was barely a factor in the election campaign. This new dynamic will make it difficult for the two countries to deal with each other as they would any other state based on a cold calculus of interests.
In managing India’s relations with other states, one must retain the space for constant calibration and adjustment, particularly when the external environment is in constant flux as it is today. India’s neighbourhood first policy must include the means to manage the relationship with Pakistan in order to ensure that it does not become an enduring constraint. If any shift in posture is precluded by domestic political compulsions, the calibration required by foreign policy imperatives becomes impossible.
Despite the fraught state of India-Pakistan relations, we should take a keen interest in the exciting political drama unfolding among “the people next door.” Whichever direction the movement takes, whether it fails or succeeds, its impact will reverberate outside its borders, affecting our region and beyond. On balance, its success could open the door to a potentially positive re-engagement. And, perhaps, there is a lesson here for India’s own fragmented political opposition, struggling to retain its political relevance in a BJP-dominated universe.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2020 under the title “The ferment next door”. The writer is a former foreign secretary and senior fellow CPR, Delhi.
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