Now each day is fair and balmy, Everywhere you look, the army.
—Ustad Daman, 1959
IT IS JUST A matter of time before Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is ousted from his position. Whichever way one slices and dices the numbers in the National Assembly, the dice is loaded against him. This was evident on March 28 when the no-confidence motion was tabled against him.
In the days since then, an increasingly desperate Khan has tried all the tactics to save his government. From rallying his supporters at a rally in Islamabad a day before the motion was tabled to getting the support of “evergreen” politicians in the National Assembly. He even went so far as to claim a conspiracy against Pakistan by foreign powers. By the middle of the week, the end was in sight. His ministers and supporting parties began abandoning him. A planned broadcast to the nation was shelved just before its scheduled time. There were whispers that the chief of the army staff and the director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had talked him out of that course. With voting scheduled for April 3, Khan remains defiant to the end.
It is safe to say that barring an unlikely turn of events, Khan will soon cease to be the prime minister of Pakistan. The bigger question, however, is the fate of democracy in that country. As always, it is under a cloud.
There are two—contrary—ways to look at the situation. One is that the move to oust Khan is a normal process that prevails in all democracies: once you lose support in the legislature, your time is up. There can be many reasons for that, varying from political realignments within the legislature to a government’s poor record in power. In Khan’s case, his governance record is not just poor but is one of Pakistan lurching from one economic crisis to another. Repeated approaches to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the inability to fully undertake the painful steps advised by the IMF have been hallmarks of the Khan government. Over and above the IMF, the country has been forced to borrow under humiliating conditions from other donor countries like Saudi Arabia and China. All this has been just to manage the precarious finances of Pakistan: Khan has done little to address the structural issues that afflict Pakistan’s economy.
This, however, is just one side of the picture. The other—troubling (for Pakistan)—aspect of the situation is the role of the army in what is going on. On the surface, the army is not involved in the no-confidence motion. But that is a deceptive claim. The opposition only moved for the kill after the army turned “neutral” in the equation between Khan and the opposition parties. It is no secret that Khan was supported by the army when he won the 2018 parliamentary elections. But in November 2021, Khan took a fatal misstep when he thought he could actually pick his own ISI chief. Not to be content with that, he thought he could create a rift in the top ranks of the army and possibly pick an army chief of his choice. That finally cooled the army’s enthusiasm for him. But the proximate factor was Khan’s incompetence in virtually every sphere of governance, including the alarming foreign policy miscalculations of recent months.
It is also no secret that the opposition party equipped to make the best of the current situation—the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)—is in no position to address the “army problem.” The patriarch of the party—Nawaz Sharif—knows the real political problem well. But he is in exile in London and his younger brother—Shahbaz Sharif—is known for a ‘softer approach’ to the army. One can dub his approach pragmatic but the reality is that the elder Sharif knows that even if one wins power, the room for political manoeuvre is not just limited but severely cramped by the men with guns. Entire swathes of policymaking are out of bounds for any government. There is no sign of that structural issue being broached, let alone being addressed. That serves the men in khaki very well: All it has to do is to bide its time until the next crisis arrives.
Seen from that perspective, the failure of Khan’s party—the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)—weakens democracy in Pakistan. In many ways, PTI was a party of the political ferment witnessed in different countries in the past decade. It was, as the Pakistani scholar Tabinda Khan notes, a “catch-all” party. PTI, like other anti-system parties everywhere, channelled the anger of the middle class and other sections that found no place in established parties. The innovative feature of PTI was that instead of mobilising on regional and biradari (kinship) networks, it made corruption, nepotism and economic performance planks of its political programme.
But PTI was not immune to the challenges that most anti-system parties have faced: heavy dependence on the charisma of a single leader, the absence of an ideological glue and the literally free entry to the detritus of other parties in its ranks. The last point is particularly fatal in the case of PTI. In a tearing hurry to acquire power, Imran Khan allowed “electables” to enter PTI. Now, on its way down, these factors are likely to make post-power life very difficult for PTI. Other parties have their vote banks but PTI’s lack of ideological glue—the enabling condition for collecting a huge mass of supporters swiftly—will make its revival very tough.
If that were not enough, the party’s old guard—the kind that gathered on April 25, 1996, when Khan declared his intention to turn his philanthropic set-up into a party—is now just a husk of its former self. Khan was too impatient to deal with questions about ideology, party recruitment, funding, and more. That will haunt him in the time ahead.
In this context, Tabinda Khan’s testimony is valuable. She was once a member of PTI and notes that “From 2012 to 2016, I was an official member of the PTI and left when the party’s election commissioner, Tasneem Noorani, resigned and the chances for intra-party elections and party reform through that route appeared slim.” Her sentiment will ring a familiar bell to many observers of Indian politics.
Khan was considered unfriendly to India and it is quite likely that his ouster will be celebrated. In many ways, democracy in Pakistan does not matter to India as the two countries are least likely to see better ties, irrespective of the party in power there or the form of government. If anything, it is under the rule of the generals that India-Pakistan relations have come closest to being normal. Whenever an elected government has tried to improve relations with India, its rivals and the generals have short-circuited the process. That is the paradox of relations between the two countries. India has laid the groundwork for making Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) another normal jurisdiction within its territory. This is least likely to be accepted by Pakistan even as there is precious little it can do about it. The time when democracy in Pakistan will matter to India is not anywhere on the horizon.