A Force No More?

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BASHIR ASSAD

The results of the elections to the Pakistan National Assembly seem to clearly point at a rejection of the Pakistani army and the extremist religious groups by the majority of the electorate. KC dives in and attempts an analysis of the scenario.

THE elections to the Pakistan National Assembly have just concluded. And they have thrown a hung assembly. With Nawaz Sharief’s PMLN has been claiming the highest number of seats on the party symbol, the independents supported by Imran Khan remain top on the tally despite the widespread allegations of rigging and manipulations by the Pakistan Election Commission.

There is complete chaos in Pakistan as a large majority of the electorate are unwilling to accept the election results. Though there are efforts by the military establishment to be assertive during the transition of political power, the situation, it is likely, may take a toll on law and order of the country.

This just-concluded election in Pakistan calls for an in-depth analysis.

  • No clean slates

Pakistan has been prone to election frauds and manipulations throughout its history. And the recent elections are much more significant in many ways.

To begin with, we need to understand that the February 2024 elections were not between Nawaz Sharief and Imran Khan. Pakistan watchers would agree that both the leaders had credibility crisis. Nawaz, on one hand, had lost credibility many years ago because of what is being referred to as ‘lazy politics’ while Imran Khan was almost exposed for his failures by April 2022. He, as the country’s prime minister, had failed miserably in improving the lives of the common masses. People had witnessed unprecedented inflation and economic slow-down during his tenure and had to bear the brunt of soaring prices, joblessness and absence of basic amenities. There was disenchantment within Imran Khan’s PTI. On one side, Khan was struggling to keep the flock together, while on the other side, people of Pakistan had lost faith in him. It was during his tenure that the country went into severe economic crisis and the IMF refused to bail him out. There was anger brewing among the masses against Khan.

However, the events that followed post withdrawal of support by allies and defection within his party, brought him a breather. People initially used the banner of PTI to vent their anger and frustration. But gradually, a wave of sympathy went in favour of the beleaguered Khan following his implication by the corrupt courts of law of that country in the cases which could never stand the scrutiny of impartiality.

I had, on many occasions since 2020, argued that there was an undercurrent against the Pakistani army which is being seen as the mother of all evils in the country. From controlling the major financial resources to meddling into the political affairs of the country against the will of the general masses to defining the foreign policy, the army pulls the strings of power in Pakistan.  By engineering a defection within Imran Khan’s Party in early 2022, the Pakistan army committed a monstrous blunder. Had he been allowed to complete his term as the premier of Pakistan, Khan would have been fallen apart automatically.

From the perspective of the general public of Pakistan, the mass uprising against the Pakistan army cannot be and should not be defined by Imran Khan’s rise or fall. With or without Imran Khan, the anti-army sentiment was brewing up. To put it simply, the anti-army sentiment in Pakistan is beyond Imran Khan.

Now what’s happened is that Imran Khan ceased the opportunity to represent the sentiment – the popular sentiment – and Nawaz Sharief, on the other hand, represented the status-quo.

  • The anti-army tide in Pakistan

The February elections, therefore, were not a contest between Sharief and Khan. They were a contest between the army and the people of Pakistan. Notwithstanding the machinations and manipulations, it was a vote against the Pakistani army and its cousins in extremist religious groups. The elections marked the beginning of a long-drawn battle between the army and the people of Pakistan. The anger is not directed against the army chief (as is being suggested by many). It is an upsurge against the institution of army. It would be totally wrong to suggest that the sentiment is against the army chief as he engineered the defection within Imran Khan’s party and ousted him from premiership.

The sentiment in Pakistan is not directed against a particular event. The undercurrent was there much before the events of 2022. Economic distress, law and order, sectarian clashes, terrorism, misgovernance, poverty, inflation… all these problems had finally directed the anger towards the army for two reasons. One; the Pakistani army sits over the resources and reserves of Pakistan, and takes the lion’s share of all the resources. The ‘poorest of the poor’ Pakistan has an elitist army across the globe essentially because it owns a unique network of manufacturing – be it steel, cement, fertilisers, oil and distillery. In all, the Pakistan army runs 18 industries in the country and has a net income of 1.671 billion dollars with assets of about 500 billion dollars. On the other hand, the army takes a major chunk of the annual plan of Pakistan which is mostly based on foreign debts. Literally, the Pakistan army sucks the blood of the Pakistanis and at the same time, enjoys so many privileges at the cost of the common man. Tax exemption, free travel benefits for the families, government facilities without any charges, so on and so forth. Of late, Pakistani people have realised that in the name of national security, the army is taking away everything from them.

Two, the army’s meddling into the political system of the country and defining its politics has really angered the Pakistanis now. Imposing regimes on Pakistanis, manipulating elections, influencing the outcome of elections, manufacturing perceived enemies and then suspending the civil liberties managing the civil governments has finally annoyed the Pakistanis, essentially those who understand the dynamics of geo-politics. A majority of Pakistanis look towards India as an emerging economic and soft power. While Pakistan still lives in the medieval times, India is fast emerging as an indispensable power globally. Besides army, the religious extremist groups which are of course the ideological cousins of the Pakistani army, are held squarely responsible for the poverty and backwardness of that country.

So, due to varied reasons, there was palpable anger brewing against the army in that country for the last six years. Imran Khan’s engineered ouster by the army provided a trigger to the undercurrent. Then the army committed monumental blunders, one after the other, to suppress the anger. This all went in favour of Imran Khan.

The army, on the other hand, miscalculated the popular sentiment. It took it as a wave in favour of Imran Khan. But that was not the case. There continues to remain a strong sentiment against the army itself. As emphasised, with or without Imran Khan, the anger against the Pakistani army is the reality of the day.

  • Diving into the analysis

Precisely, Imran had this God-gifted opportunity to represent the anti-army sentiment. Nawaz, on the other hand, represented the conventional and conservative mode of politics of continuity. Imran got this opportunity to represent the story of disruption. However, in the process, he too committed some blunders which the army tried to exploit to the hilt. Upon his ouster from the premiership of Pakistan, Imran peddled the conspiracy theory against America. Naïve as he is, Imran couldn’t realise that he couldn’t fight the powerful army on the domestic front and the super power America together. Of course there is a sentiment against America in Pakistan. Khan could not take a holistic look at the inherent weaknesses of his country which makes it vulnerable to the external influences.

The power game is deepening in intrigue, so much so that America herself complains of intervention by Russia and China to influence the presidential elections. The weaker you are, the louder you bark. Pakistan is just a strategic pawn in the global chessboard. Nothing indigenous about it. Everything is determined by external influences. Imran Khan should be aware of the chequered history of Pakistan. Be it the coups by military generals, the killing of its leaders, trials of its leaders in courts… all were influenced by the external powers. Rather, emergence of Imran Khan himself on the political horizon of Pakistan has had external links. He too was initially the favourite of the Pakistani army. Imran should not have gone so far in making US a direct stakeholder in Pakistan elections. Politics of excitement is good but you need to choose your friends and enemies cautiously. You cannot afford a battle on multiple fronts, knowing your weaknesses.

Secondly, Imran Khan should have learnt a lesson from the defection by his cohorts, immaterial whether it was for the fear of reprimand by the army or by choice. Defection in Khan’s PTI reminds me of the defection in Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP in Jammu and Kashmir. All those who defected in 2019 from the PDP had defected earlier from Dr. Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference to Mufti’s PDP. Khan’s PTI as such, is a cadre less party. All those who joined him, defected from one or the other earlier political formations. Cashing in on the sentiment is different from creation of a sentiment. Khan has never been in a position to create a sentiment around his persona. He has only tried to cash in on the popular sentiment against the army and the earlier regimes remote controlled by the army. It was a miscalculation on his behalf to see it from his own perspective.

The elections in Pakistan, at best, could be summarised as of lost opportunities, firm disruptions and indolent continuity. The Election Commission of Pakistan, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the civil bureaucracy of Pakistan could not uphold institutional independence and sanctity. It is a lost hope. The people of Pakistan, though late, have finally woken up to disrupt the conventional and conservative thought processes in Pakistan. And Nawaz Sharief and his family, Bilawal Bhutto and his family are to stay there in continuity of the status-quo. And last but not the least, the Pakistani army would not surrender to the will of Pakistanis so soon. It would rather continue to write and seal the fate of Pakistanis for the time being. As for the rigging or manipulation of the elections and election results, it’s news only when there is no news.

Yes, one remarkable shift in Pakistan is that the media is resolute to defy the army and the establishment. This again is because the people of Pakistan are readying to defy the powers that be and change the course of politics in that country.

While the PMLN and PPP colluded to form the next government in Pakistan and coalition seems immensely weak this time, let’s wait and watch how the events unfold in the near future.

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