Should India engage Pakistan’s generals directly, bypassing Imran?
Ambassador G Parthasarathy, India’s former high commissioner to Pakistan, ponders Delhi’s diplomatic dilemma.
Pakistan’s 2018 parliamentary election will in many ways be regarded as yet another a turning point in the country’s turbulent history and its efforts to develop strong and enduring democratic institutions.
Barely six months ago, Pakistanis were proudly proclaiming that they were actually heading for their third consecutive free and fair parliamentary election, uninterrupted by an army coup.
While Nawaz Sharif had twice been ousted earlier by the military, he, like his compatriots across the country, discovered that as the election approached, they confronted a totally new challenge.
Sharif was being set up to face ouster and arrest by a combination of the higher judiciary and the army. Even an inquiry group set up to charge him included two serving brigadiers from the army.
The entire process to arrest and debar Sharif from politics appalled jurists across Pakistan and invited public criticism from a serving Pakistan high court judge.
The Pakistan army did not resort to half-measures.
‘Advisories’ were issued to newspapers and television stations that there should be no coverage favourable to Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party.
Defections were engineered in the PML-N and several PML-N candidates, confident of winning, were ‘encouraged’ to join other parties, or contest as Independents.
Distributors of newspapers like the highly respected Dawn were told to withhold distribution.
Pakistan was under martial law in all but name, as the country approached the election.
While the election commission appeared determined to hold a free and fair election, the damage had already been substantially done before election day.
What was heartening was that some leading lights of the Pakistan media like Hamid Haroon, Ahmed Rashid and Najam Sethi showed courage and character in blasting the army’s interference in electoral politics.
The worst kept secret in Pakistan was that its army was firmly backing its protégé, the charismatic 1992 World Cup-winning captain Imran Khan.
Imran was also popularly known as ‘Taliban’ Khan given his unabashed admiration and support for the Taliban. A former ISI chief with rabid Islamist propensities, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul had inducted Khan into politics.
Despite all the army’s assistance, Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf could not get the numbers to form a stable government, enjoying majority parliamentary support on its own.
The PTI won 115 seats and was 27 short of a parliamentary majority.
The race to form a government in Punjab is also too close to call, though one should not be surprised if governments headed by the PTI are set up in Punjab, bordering India, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa bordering Afghanistan.
The army has the ‘engineering skills’ to ensure that Imran comfortably ascends to the throne in Islamabad.
While India has chosen not to comment officially on these developments in Pakistan, there is due care being taken to see that nothing untoward happens during the period of transition.
Not surprisingly, Imran was strongly critical of coverage of Pakistan’s election by the Indian media, conveniently forgetting that that the Indian media based its reportage on contacts with their Pakistani counterparts, who had been virtually gagged by the army.
Unless the army reins him in, Imran is set to have a testy, uncomfortable, relationship with the Americans.
He acknowledged the economic challenges with depleting foreign exchange reserves that Pakistan faces, but appeared to fail to recognise that it would be in deep trouble without an IMF bailout.
And such a bailout would not be forthcoming unless US concerns on terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere are met.
There appears to be a feeling in the Pakistani establishment that the US is prepared to beat a hasty retreat from Afghanistan, given its readiness to talk to the Taliban as a prelude to such a swift departure.
Pakistan is also expanding its intelligence contacts with China, Russia and Iran, quite clearly to enable these powers to strengthen the Taliban and further squeeze the US.
The new charade Pakistan is promoting is that the real danger to the region comes not from the Taliban, but from Islamic State, which most international analysts acknowledge hardly exists in or around Afghanistan.
How the Trump administration deals with these challenges remains to be seen, as the US state department lacks the experienced staff for serious diplomacy on such issues.
Moreover, Imran Khan, who had reservations about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, as it brought little by way of development to his constituency, now waxes eloquent on China’s achievements and assistance in the CPEC.
It seems clear that Pakistan’s competent diplomatic establishment will have to spend a lot of time briefing their new prime minister on the realities of geopolitics.
Imran will soon learn that on issues pertaining to relations with China, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US, decisions on key issues are taken at the Pakistan army headquarters in Rawalpindi and not the prime minister’s office in Islamabad.
India will have to carefully consider how it deals with the new establishment in Pakistan.
For months now, there have been hints emerging from the GHQ in Rawalpindi that it would be useful if there were more direct channels of communications between the two militaries.
Right now the only channel of communications between the two armies is between the directors general of military operations who focus on periodic instances of cease-fire violations across the international border and the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.
There was no question of establishing such a channel bypassing the elected civilian government, which was known to be opposed to the military’s sponsorship of terrorism and support for extremist elements in India and Afghanistan.
New Delhi will now have to ponder over this issue afresh, as in the eyes of most Indians, the civilian government in Pakistan is already beholden in many ways to the military in Pakistan and may have relatively little say on issues of national security.