Yet another chapter in Pakistan’s political saga is unfolding, but this time with civilian threats to the incumbent government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and Tahir ul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). Both sides are calling for the unseating of Sharif, albeit with different arguments. Cricketer turned politician Khan insists that the elections that brought Sharif to power were rigged, while the Canadian-born cleric Qadri accuses the government of corruption and autocracy. Neither Pakistan nor Sharif himself are strangers to such protests, which are reminiscent of Sharif’s ousting by Prime Minister Benzair Bhutto in 1993, and his overthrow by the General Pervez Musharraf-led coup in 1999.
While the current impasse sees the leaders of both sets of protestors exhibiting partisan motivations, the elephant in the room is the Pakistan Army, whose involvement in the protests remains ambiguous, yet highly probable. Indeed, Army Chief General Raheel Sharif was called upon to mediate between the government and the protestors. While it is highly unlikely the military will risk a direct coup at this time, for fear of losing much-needed international support including $3 billion in U.S. aid, the present turmoil is in all probability suggestive of the Army’s attempt to continue to rule implicitly. In a country with a history of military interventions, the standoff presents an opportunity for the military to exploit schisms and shoulder responsibility, ultimately maintaining its de facto control over Pakistani politics. Analysts speculate that the latest schism is being supported by the country’s security apparatus, and is likely a pretext for the military to maintain its control over security and foreign policy, which since the inception of Pakistan in 1947 have been completely under its purview. Defense Analyst Hasan Rizvi concedes, “The military wants to force a change but without direct assumption of power.” According to Dawn, “These events were highly choreographed and scripted by some power other than Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri.”
The protests could potentially have negative implications for relations between Pakistan and its neighbor and rival India, which recently seemed to be on a rather promising path. The triumph of Pakistani democracy last year and India’s recent election laid the groundwork for an encouraging revamp of the relationship. Sharif’s civilian government signaled a hopeful, impending shift in its traditionally precarious relations with its larger neighbor. The margin of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral victory provides him with a rare foreign policy opportunity in a challenging neighborhood. Importantly, the propensity of both Sharif and Modi to favor business could potentially de-link sensitive issues from broader economic engagement. The relationship began with a promising early start, with Sharif’s attendance at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, and the saree-shawl diplomacy that ensued.
Relations between Sharif and the Army have historically been shaky. Sharif’s qualms about the Army, which ousted him in the 1999 coup led by Musharraf, are well founded. Over the previous year, Sharif’s policies have been widely disturbing to the military, particularly concerning his peace overtures to India, the treason case against Musharraf, and negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban. Ceasefire violations across the border by the Army, even as Sharif sent mangoes to Modi in a diplomatic gesture, illustrate the tensions in strategic policy in a country that lacks a cohesive power center.
The current tumult is subtly suggestive of a spat between the security establishment and the civilian government. The likelihood that the protests will lead to a resignation by Sharif is remote. Yet the possibility that his government could be significantly weakened and constrained in its decision-making is exceedingly plausible, with the Army and its authoritarian inclinations emerging victorious by simultaneously managing to keep the incumbent civilian leadership in check, and validating itself as “the antidote to civil disorder” as it has previously done. Sharif is viewed as tilting the civil-military equation that has historically been in favor of the military, and pursuing policies, particularly his reconciliation attempts with India, that directly clash with the Army’s source of power. Academic Ayesha Siddiqa observes, “Sharif would now only be able to serve out the rest of his term as a “ceremonial prime minister.”
India might well be under the leadership of an emphatic and dynamic prime minister, intent on following a constructive approach toward dealing with Pakistan. But in Pakistan, which has historically oscillated between military rule and democracy, where processes and outcomes are sometimes disregarded, the protests support the country’s delicate premise: weak ineffective civilian institutions, and continued tutelage by an Army obsessed with achieving strategic parity with India. As author Christine Fair notes, “Pakistan’s Army will persist in pursuing revisionist policies that have come to imperil the viability of the Pakistani state, and maintain the status quo of the most stable instability.” Revising Pakistan’s security and foreign policies will be difficult for any civilian government that attempts to inflate its powers, as long as the dynamics remain in the hands of the generals in power.
The protests have ensured a situation in which Sharif will, out of a need to accommodate the military’s interests, be restrained in addressing India’s apprehensions, including terrorism and ceasefire violations. An apparently transgressive Sharif will be curtailed and steered toward the pursuit of policies favorable to the military, specifically toward India and post-NATO Afghanistan.
As the protests unfold, they provide a reality check while thwarting some of the optimism felt during the early Modi-Sharif days. Instead of moving beyond traditional animosities and accelerating economic engagement, the bilateral relationship returns to a stalemate, as appeasement of the military would likely trump economic engagement with India in the near future. And despite two enterprising leaders being in power, any improvement in relations between India and Pakistan risks being ephemeral and subject to outside influence. Thus, as long as the national security paradigm continues to be dictated by the Army, the historical Indo-Pakistan narrative is unlikely to change, and India will continue to be forced to follow a reactive policy toward Pakistan.
Shairee Malhotra is an analyst at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations in Mumbai, India. She has an MA International Relations from Queen Mary University of London.