Pakistani polity in turbulence

Pakistani polity in turbulence

Across the border

Pakistani polity took another interesting turn this week when a three-member special court in Islamabad convicted the country’s former president Pervez Musharraf for violating its constitution by unlawfully declaring emergency rule while he was in power and sentenced him to death in absentia for high treason following a six-year legal case. This is a remarkable development as it is the first time in Pakistan’s history that a former army chief has been tried and found guilty of treason.

Just last month, a three-member bench of the Pakistan Supreme Court, headed by the country’s Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, sought a public explanation from the Imran Khan government about the need to extend the tenure of army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa by three years. Appointed to the present position by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in November 2016, Bajwa’s extension was announced in August by Khan himself, ostensibly in light of the “regional security environment,” soon after India revoked Article 370 pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir. Bajwa’s profile had risen in the last few months, with him accompanying Khan on his maiden visit to America during which he met US President Donald Trump at the White House, and with his nomination as a member of the National Development Council formed in 2018 to “formulate and tailor policies to achieve accelerated economic growth.” After India’s Kashmir move, he had warned that his troops were prepared to “go to any extent” to help Kashmiris.

All seemed to be going as per the script until days before Bajwa’s term was set to expire. Pakistan’s Supreme Court on November 26 suspended the extension, raising questions about the legality of the decision. The Chief Justice underlined that "if something is wrong as per the law, we cannot say that it is correct. If [the decision] is not correct as per the law, we will give our verdict.” In a sign of how entrenched the civil-military nexus in Pakistan is, Farogh Naseem, Khan’s law minister, resigned from his post to represent Gen. Bajwa in court.

This intervention by the Supreme Court was quite dramatic in the context of Pakistan where the army retains its pre-eminence in the power hierarchy. Imran Khan is widely viewed as a puppet of the military establishment who was “selected” to toe the military’s line. Though it all ended a bit anti-climactically when the Supreme Court bench finally decided that Bajwa can be granted an extension for another six months (shortening from the three years granted by the government), this turbulence reflected the underlying tensions in Pakistani polity, which remains under stress at a number of levels.

The Imran Khan government was directed by the Supreme Court to submit an undertaking that parliament would pass a legislation on this matter within six months. Khan made his displeasure very clear when he suggested that the verdict must be “a great disappointment to those who expected the country to be destabilised by a clash of institutions.” It later turned out that the Pakistani army might itself be a disunited force. Reportedly, around seven army generals made an attempt with Chief Justice Khosa to block the government’s decision to grant three-year extension to Bajwa as this would have a negative impact on their careers. Since 1972, only one Pakistani general has had his term extended by a civilian government.

This curious case has underscored once again how powerful the military apparatus remains in Pakistan. Imran Khan, of course, is beholden to it, but other parties too remain reluctant to challenge the military’s dominance. The ball is now in parliament to institutionalise the role of the army chief but it is not readily evident that there is any will in the Pakistani polity to take this matter head on. Nawaz Sharif’s condition is a signal to all those who intend to challenge the military. His government was the only one which tried to take on the military but he had to bear significant political and personal costs.

The Pakistani economy is struggling and there is no political will to undertake the structural reforms needed to bring the economy back on track. Diplomatically, China remains the main benefactor and under Chinese pressure, the Belt and Road Initiative-related projects are being reportedly revived despite a clear sense among wide sections that these projects are not worth pursuing. Pakistan’s balancing between its Arab friends and Iran is becoming trickier by the day. It had to deny reports of joint border patrolling with Iran along the Balochistan border. Relations with the US are not improving and there seems little appetite in the international community to give any more blank cheques to Pakistan’s military establishment.

Imran Khan is fast losing traction in the domestic polity of Pakistan. The way he handled the army chief’s case has come in for all-round criticism, with his incompetence becoming publicly visible. His disdain for parliament will also challenge his ability to govern on serious issues. And now, with sections of the military also challenging him, his position looks even more shaky than before.

For India, the challenge remains one of managing the negative externalities from Pakistan’s domestic dysfunctionalities. The Pakistani military might now try to focus on India so as to resurrect its diminishing credentials, especially as Bajwa will be under pressure. He will have to prove his worth by making sure the regional security environment deteriorates. His Kashmir agenda might bloom fully now as he has a limited timeframe of three months to prove his worth. New Delhi has managed the Kashmir security situation well so far but that’s partly because Pakistan has been engaged in managing its multiple domestic crises. As these crises force the Pakistani military to create disturbances outside, New Delhi has its task cut out.

(The writer is Director, Studies, at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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