For folks who are used to hyphenating India and Pakistan, it’s hard not to see the contrast heavily tilted in India’s favor at the moment.
In the aftermath of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest this month, Pakistan saw rare and violent protests against the military establishment, which Khan’s supporters accuse of being responsible for his ouster from power last year and his imprisonment. In Lahore, the residence of an army commander was burnt down. In Rawalpindi, the army’s headquarters were attacked. The Pakistani government now says that it will try the civilian protestors under the country’s dreaded army laws.
This political crisis could not have come at a worse time for Pakistan. Even before Khan’s arrest, inflation was soaring in Pakistan; foreign reserves were dwindling; food and other essentials were scarce; and a debt default loomed. A stalled financing program from the International Monetary Fund is due to expire in June, even as the government has struggled to resume it for months. By Khan’s own assessment, “[Pakistan is] now in a worse situation than Sri Lanka was.”
Some strategic analysts in New Delhi might be tempted to see all this as a propitious landscape for India. Pakistan’s domestic chaos means that it is less able to play an influential role in Afghanistan, where New Delhi is quietly cultivating ties with the Taliban.
It also makes Pakistan a less useful partner to China, which is currently trying to expand its footprint westwards into the Middle East. And the lack of a credible center of power in Pakistan also means that its Muslim allies would be less able or willing to confront India over the Kashmir dispute. Just this week, Turkey and Saudi Arabia joined China to protest against India’s decision to host a G-20 tourism working group meeting in Kashmir. Such efforts would hold far more teeth if Pakistan had a stable government in power.
Yet, instability also brings sundry risks for New Delhi on the whole. Khan’s predicament has decimated the legitimacy and credibility of not only the fragile ruling coalition but also Pakistan’s powerful army itself. In a Gallup survey that came out only weeks ago, Khan was crowned Pakistan’s most popular leader with approval ratings of 61 percent — far ahead of the country’s current rulers. It’s well possible that Khan’s popularity has only been bolstered by his arrest, subsequent release, and the ruling establishment’s crackdown on his party. The fact that Pakistanis from across cities were willing to storm the streets and attack military installations — in a country where the army has held the keys to power for decades — is an ominous and unprecedented sign of Khan’s popularity. The stage is now set for a prolonged showdown.
For India, such instability often breeds volatility on the border. In the distraction caused by the chaos, militants targeting India may see a potential opportunity for a cross-border attack. In 2008, months after a chaotic movement ousted former President Pervez Musharraf, militants launched one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on Indian soil in Mumbai. In the ongoing crisis, the army’s ability to control such actors stands heavily compromised — thereby leaving India’s border security that much more precarious.
For its part, faced with an unprecedented crisis of credibility, Pakistan’s army may itself try to reassert authority by sparking hostilities with India along the border. For decades, Pakistan’s army has sought to reassert control at home by presenting India as an existential threat that only the military can counter. With tensions currently running high between New Delhi and Islamabad, that opportunity lies wide open.
The prolonged power struggle in Islamabad also makes it harder for India to respond to such crises diplomatically, with no credible partner to deal with. Through much of India-Pakistan history, cross-border relations have proved far more stable under more powerful Pakistani leaders — often even those with ties to the army. But the ongoing crackdown on Khan’s party and protests against the military leave Pakistan somewhat headless for the foreseeable future, even as elections loom later this year.
The longer Pakistan’s political crisis runs, the more vigilant India ought to be on its border.