At the time of writing this, it seems that the current political crisis in Pakistan has entered a lighter phase. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan is appearing in courts for many cases that have been slapped against him (instead of refusing to come, as he had been doing before). He is also no longer being held incommunicado by the paramilitary forces; he is now instead held in a guesthouse and is at liberty to hold meetings there. With this fragile ceasefire reached, Khan’s supporters are no longer protesting violently, although the army is still on the streets.
Yet there is little doubt the crisis will unfold further this year.
As elections should be held later in 2023, and as Khan and his party’s popularity is growing again, the Shehbaz Sharif government is apparently trying to block Khan from entering the electoral battle. The current Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government and the military that is backing it seem obstinate in their attempts to get Khan disqualified from contesting future elections by having him convicted in at least some of the current court cases. If his supporters’ protests continue, the government may even term his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a terrorist entity and thus bar it from taking part in elections at all. This, by the way, would guarantee a victory for the parties of the ruling coalition, while disqualifying Khan would not; his party could still contest elections even in case of his conviction and personal disqualification. Thus, we can expect more pro-Khan protests if, and when: (1) Imran Khan is convicted and disqualified, (2) the PTI is barred from elections , and/or (3) the current coalition government wins the elections, applying all means necessary to do so.
Such protests may lead to clashes not just with police or paramilitary forces but even with the military. It is Pakistan’s generals who have orchestrated the deposal of their former protégé, Imran Khan. These circumstances mean that throughout 2023, not only the Pakistani political system and economy, but even a part of the armed forces may remain weakened by these recurring and intersecting crises.
This begs a question: Is this situation good for India? How do Indian analysts view the political crisis in Pakistan?
There are two main aspects that Indian commentators focus on. On the one hand, they highlight the idea that internal struggles in Pakistan brings India’s own military forces some relief; on the other hand, the chaos in Pakistan may cause dangers for India as well.
The Enemy’s Weakness Is Our Strength
Conventional wisdom would suggest that a crisis in Pakistan is good news for India. After all, the Pakistani army may now be preoccupied with quelling protests, or at least watching them proceed nervously. It will later be briefly occupied with “securing” the elections (i.e. making sure their side wins). The more difficult Khan and his supporters make it for the generals and the longer this situation lasts, the less focus the Pakistani army will be able to direct toward the Indian front.
Writing for The Print, professor Rajesh Rajagopalan argues that:
Pakistan’s current crises do benefit India in a couple of short-term ways. For one, it potentially gives India a breather for at least the immediate future from both the terrorist and a conventional war threat. […] Pakistan’s current domestic political and economic challenges hopefully would prevent either their military or political leaders from engaging in risky external adventurism.
When it comes to the nuclear threat, Rajagopalan also adds that “concern that rogue actors may gain control of nuclear weapons has been overblown for decades” and “[o]bviously, nuclear weapons cannot be used to settle domestic political disputes, nor can targeting India bring any resolution to the crisis inside Pakistan.”
However, he stresses that these are short-term benefits. Rajagopalan continues:
India can hope that its various current crises will drive Pakistan to make better choices going forward because trying to keep pace—let alone catch up—with the much larger India is simply not a viable option for Pakistan. […] But the quandary for India is that there is little that it can do to change Pakistan’s calculus other than hope for good sense across the border.
The only doubt I have about all of the above points, however, is the terrorist threat. Using shadowy radical organizations to strike Indian territory probably does not involve much of the Pakistani forces’ personnel. It certainly does require resources: Someone must train, equip and fund the terrorists, prepare them for attacks, and help them sneak through the porous, contested border. But it seems completely reasonable to imagine that while certain soldiers and military intelligence officers are busy with preparing such an operation, many other units are free to quell protests inside the country.
Even more importantly, such a terrorist provocation may be enacted precisely to divert public attention from the internal crisis. And this is what brings me to the other side of the picture.
The Enemy’s Weakness May Become Our Problem
Writing for the Indian Express, Avinash Paliwal, also a professor specializing in Indian foreign policy, argues that what is taking place in Pakistan:
…is a dangerous situation not just for Pakistan, but also for neighbors, especially India. Pakistan may not have the fuel to fire its tanks, but the ongoing tumult could undermine the leftovers of rationality that hold a badly needed ceasefire at the Line of Control.
Sushant Sareen, an expert with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), reads the situation both ways in his recent commentary for News18. Pointing out that much will depend on the policy of Pakistan’s new Chief of Army Staff Asim Munir toward India, Sareen writes that:
For the foreseeable future, given the political uncertainty inside Pakistan, the prospect of any forward movement to normalize things between the two adversaries appears rather bleak. Gen. Asim Munir seems to be struggling to establish his writ on the divided Pakistan Army. There is an apprehension that in order to rally the country and the Army, Munir […] might try to indulge in some adventurism against India. But given the risks involved, this could easily backfire on him and his country.
Alternatively, he could stick to [his predecessor] Bajwa’s template and keep the peace with India. The latter would be the rational thing to do. […] Under Bajwa, the Pakistan Army proved that it could think in a rational framework. But past history also suggests that Pakistan Army can also indulge in some irrational action, which from its perspective, is perfectly rational.
The “adventurism” that all three authors quoted above are alluding to is certainly a reference to such historic instances as the 1999 Kargil war. Pakistan’s loss in that clash led General Pervez Musharraf to depose Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and take over power. Sharif claimed that it was Musharraf who started the conflict in the first place, and thus the whole war could be read as a tool in domestic politics. Musharraf could have provoked hostilities with India, put the blame on his own prime minister, and then used this as a justification to depose him. Thus, in 1999, Pakistan’s internal tussles turned out to be very much a great challenge for India, not a moment of relief.
The Fear of a Provocation
It must be pointed out that Pakistan’s armed forces hold crucial influence on the country’s internal politics and continuously claim that they are the only force that keeps the Indian threat to Pakistan at bay. Thus, while the generals are, of course, not openly saying that they are free to meddle in Pakistan’s weak democracy because they are the sole defenders of the country, this is implied by their apologists. Pro-military hawks in Islamabad and in Rawalpindi would say that Khan and his supporters’ opposition to the army is weakening the country, exposing it to the Indian threat.
This, of course, is a false narrative: It is simply the primary duty of the armed forces of any country to defend its territory, and this never justifies a military regime (and military rule is at any rate never good for a country). Had the Pakistani army stayed away from politics in the first place, it would not now be tied up with domestic political concerns such as supporting the ruling coalition or resisting the opposition. But withdrawing from politics would mean losing much of the power and privileges that Pakistan’s army officers are used to enjoying.
In the past, attempts by governments in both India and Pakistan to achieve peace, or at least lessen tensions, have been hijacked by Pakistani terrorist organizations. It is very likely that these were acting on the orders of their handlers from the Pakistani military intelligence. A total war with India is certainly not what the Pakistani generals want, but a lasting peace with New Delhi is also simply not in their interest. After all, if the border is peaceful, why should the state offer so many funds and privileges to the armed forces?
And thus the Pakistani army could use this connection between facing India and internal politics to deal with its current Khan problem. Let us imagine such a dark hypothetical: A terrorist attack is enacted by a Pakistani terrorist organization in India. Pointing out that the attack originated from Pakistani territory, New Delhi strikes back, as it happened in 2019, when terrorist camps in Pakistan were bombed by Indian fighter jets in response to a major terrorist attack. The Pakistani army is then forced to respond (again, this also took place in 2019). The generals immediately point out that it was all India’s fault, that the Pakistan had nothing to do with the terrorist attack, and that now this is a national security situation during which other matters, such as democratic processes, must be relegated to the back seat. Such a state of emergency would allow the generals to, for instance, jail Khan and his party leaders (even without the court cases and despite the Supreme Court’s opposition), at least temporarily ban Khan’s party, and (very probably) postpone elections until a more opportune time.
Equally importantly, causing such a clash with India could potentially help the Pakistani armed forces partially repair their internal image, which is now taking a beating due to the tussle between the generals and Khan. But such a provocation would also certainly trigger tensions with India, the result of which would be hard for both sides to predict.
Thus, the current crisis in Pakistan may turn out to be a challenge for New Delhi after all.