Why India-Pakistan relations will continue to remain frosty despite Imran Khan exit
New Delhi looks at the Shehbaz Sharif government as a temporary one and hence would not invest too much political capital or effort to mend relations
Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan left his position kicking and screaming like a petulant child on the night of 10 April 2022. He acquitted himself most dishonourably and did great damage to Pakistan and Pakistan democracy by his shenanigans and antics. He should have adopted the decorous and dignified course of action and resigned gracefully on 3 April when it became clear that he did not have the numbers. This would have been in keeping with the prestige of the high office that he held for 43 months.
Not only did Imran Khan not do that, he tried every trick in the trade to cling to the office of the Prime Minister. The Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan illegally dismissed the no-confidence motion against Imran Khan alleging that a foreign country's involvement in the regime change was contradictory to Article 5 of the Constitution of Pakistan. Imran Khan lost no time in recommending the dissolution of the National Assembly and fresh elections to the President, who duly stamped the proposal. Both these actions, by the Deputy Speaker and the President, were held illegal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The Supreme Court decision sought to belatedly redress the situation and accord some respectability to the Pakistan democratic institutions. Regrettably, that was not to be.
The Speaker and the Deputy Speaker were unfazed by the Supreme Court reprimand and tried every dirty gimmick to subvert the court decision to hold the no-confidence vote on the morning of 10 April. After a full-day drama and following resignations of both the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker who said that they could not go against Imran Khan because they had been together since their student days, Imran Khan was voted out of office after midnight on 10 April.
Khan, who came to power with promises to create a ‘Naya Pakistan’, was unceremoniously removed from the office, becoming the first premier in the country’s history to be ousted through a no-trust motion. It is inconceivable in a democracy that officials appointed to Constitutional positions would refuse to discharge their onerous responsibilities impartially and be swayed and guided by personal considerations and affiliations to sabotage their oath of office.
Shehbaz Sharif’s challenges
Shehbaz Sharif, the joint opposition's candidate for the post, was elected the 23rd Prime Minister of Pakistan and took the oath of office on 11 April 2022.
Sharif brings immense hands-on experience in governance having served thrice as the chief minister of Punjab, the biggest province (in population) as well as in the size of economy, prosperity and influence in national affairs and politics. He has the reputation of being a “doer”. He has earned this reputation by successfully delivering on major and ambitious infrastructure projects. His image of an efficient administrator will be fully tested in his current position. He has started on the right note by abolishing the 2-day weekend to a single day weekend, and by starting the government offices from 8 am instead of 10 am. He exhorted the nation to work at “Pakistan Speed” to repair the country. He vowed that the new government in Pakistan wanted to “move forward” and not indulge in “politics of revenge”. This was apparently to allay fears that Imran Khan would be put behind bars, as Khan had done when he came to the top office.
Sharif has assumed the high office at a critical juncture. He has inherited a crippled economy, disturbed foreign relations and a highly polarised domestic front. Sharif will have to adroitly manage these challenges while standing atop a fragile alliance of 11 political parties that joined hands for the common objective of removing Khan from power. They have succeeded in attaining this objective. It is a moot point how much longer they will be able to keep their differences under wraps and maintain unity to provide a clean, effective government to the people. Sooner, rather than later, their widely different political outlooks will come to the fore creating fissures in the alliance.
Energising an ailing economy
Imran Khan government’s erratic economic policies, along with the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have brought Pakistan’s economy to a grinding halt. Bringing relief to the common people, worst hit by the rising inflation and growing commodity prices and improving the economic condition of the country would be the single most important expectation from and challenge for the new government.
It would be imperative to strike a fine balance between what needs to be done to ensure long-term economic recovery and what could be done in the short term, namely bringing immediate relief to the people.
Pakistan’s chronic fiscal and current account deficits are at an all-time record high, foreign exchange reserves are abysmally low, just enough for two months import cover, the Pakistani rupee has lost much value, inflation is galloping and debt has skyrocketed. The energy crisis is expected to worsen in the coming months.
According to the government, financing needs next year are estimated to be around $30 billion while the current account deficit in the ongoing fiscal year is about $20 billion. Pakistan’s financing requirements this fiscal year are about $9 billion, $6 billion for the current account gap and $3 billion for debt repayments. Even if these numbers are taken to be broad estimates, it is clear that the financing needs are huge and immediate, and with foreign exchange reserves precipitously low, it is imperative to restart talks with the International Monetary Fund immediately to continue the loan programme. This will present unpalatable alternatives to the government. It would be required to take economically sensible but politically unpopular steps, especially at a juncture when inflation is soaring and was the prime cause for disaffection of the people with the Imran Khan regime.
Managing the diverse coalition
One of the major shortfalls of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government was its failure to deliver on most of its election promises, especially those relating to improving the economy, good governance, eradicating corruption and providing employment for the people. The Khan government was criticised for arbitrary use of power — for sidestepping Parliament on major policy issues and governing through presidential ordinances instead.
PM Sharif realises that the next election will have to be called by October 2023. He has a small window of opportunity to make his mark. A big challenge would of course be to keep his flock together.
Sharif must look at some low-hanging fruits where he can deliver and make a difference. One of these could be improving governance. Notwithstanding his enviable reputation as the chief minister of Punjab, he must realise that running the country from the Centre in the current highly fraught political environment is very different. In his current role, he will have to court 11 political parties for support before his every move. These parties, with very different agendas and interests, know well that their alliance could be short-lived and that they will again be at each other’s jugular in the next election. Success in Sharif’s present position will require more inclusive policies. Any signs of schism within the ruling coalition will give strength to Imran Khan’s narrative against the government.
Imran Khan might be down but he is not out. He has demonstrated by the huge jalsas (rallies) that he organized in Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi that he still commands immense support among the people, particularly the youth of the country. He has been quite successful in advancing his narrative of America’s intervention in Pakistan’s domestic politics to dislodge him from the position of Prime Minister, at least among a certain section of the people. He has also been able to paint the Sharif and the Zardari clans as corrupt and as stooges of foreign powers. He has emerged as a hero among the masses by his chutzpah to stand up against and frontally take on the major superpower of the day. He has earned admiration by also daring the army generals who have so far been considered as untouchable.
The ensuing 18 months are likely to be a tumultuous period in Pakistani politics, as Imran Khan will do everything possible to sabotage and cripple the Sharif government and its policy initiatives, and call early elections. The way things are developing, it would not be a surprise if Pakistan finds itself in the throes of a civil war in the next few months.
Challenges on the foreign policy front
Sharif’s government will have limited flexibility while trying to repair relations with its foreign partners. The personal rapport Sharif developed with China during his tenure as chief minister of Punjab will allow him to strengthen these relations. He met the Acting Chinese Ambassador on his first day in office and reassured her of his full commitment to further expand and elevate bilateral ties. He said, “Pakistan considers China as its closest friend and strongest partner and we will take the China Pakistan Economic Corridor forward with new vigour, with new vitality and in a rejuvenated manner.” However, the growing rivalry between the United States and China could weigh on Sharif to strike a difficult balance between the two global powers.
To improve the country’s economy, Sharif will need to reach out to Washington. Because it is only through America’s support that he will be able to attract some capital into the economy, get a bailout package from the IMF and try to move out of the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force. He will have to do this slowly and discreetly to ensure that this does not give a handle to Khan who would be waiting for just such an opportunity.
Historically, foreign policy issues have not had a significant impact on domestic politics in Pakistan. But in the prevailing circumstances, Imran Khan is creating an entire campaign against the new government and for the next election based on allegations of foreign interference in Pakistani politics and an alleged US conspiracy to overthrow the Khan government. Imran Khan will present to the public any move Sharif may make in the next year to improve relations with Washington as evidence of US meddling in the internal affairs of Pakistan and having conspired to dislodge him from office. Hence, during Sharif’s truncated term in office, foreign policy is likely to have an outsized influence over domestic politics.
Sharif’s new cabinet
Shehbaz Sharif sprang no big surprises in naming his new cabinet on 19 April 2022, handing over key portfolios to officials from the two main parties viz. Pakistan Muslim League-N (PL-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party had come together to oust Imran Khan after weeks of political crisis.
If the government handles the economic issues well, other problems will settle down. If, however, the situation worsens, everyone will be quick to blame the PML-N, which is in majority.
Sharif did not name a foreign minister but that role is expected to go to the 33-year-old Bilawal Zardari Bhutto. If confirmed, the Oxford-educated Bhutto would be one of the world's youngest foreign ministers and tasked with repairing links with the West that frayed under the leadership of Khan. Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's first woman foreign minister in the last PPP government, was named Minister of State of foreign affairs.
The key finance ministry returned to Miftah Ismail, a PML-N loyalist who served as deputy and briefly minister during the party's last tenure from 2013-18. In meetings leading up to his appointment, Ismail said improving relations with the International Monetary Fund and getting a loan program back on track was a key priority, as was improving tax collection.
New Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, meanwhile, will have to tackle rising militancy and the threat of civil unrest from the huge public rallies Khan has called across the country in the months ahead.
There are just five women in Sharif's 37-member cabinet, including outspoken Mariyum Aurangzeb who returned in charge of information and responsible for selling the government's message in what promises to be a heated lead up to the next election, whenever it might take place.
Relations with India
It would not be judicious to hold one’s breath expecting a dramatic change in bilateral ties between India and Pakistan. For one it is well known that relations with India are determined by the Rawalpindi Headquarters and the civilian government has a marginal role in determining their pace and direction. There is no indication of a change in the mindset of the Pakistani Army as far as relations with India are concerned. Secondly, India has made it clear that no dialogue with Pakistan would be undertaken till it stops support to terrorism against it. No such indications or concrete steps by Pakistan to this effect have become available. If not in substance, there could be some positive change visible in the style of conducting bilateral diplomatic relations. Tone and behaviour could become more civil, formal and polite and be lifted from the depths of vituperative personal attacks that Imran Khan had descended to.
India will also see this government as a temporary one and hence would not invest too much political capital or effort to mend relations. A significant improvement in bilateral ties could also be exploited by Imran Khan as being a part of his foreign conspiracy theory to throw him out of power.
Some small steps could, however, be expected. Ambassadors of the two countries who were recalled in the wake of decision by India in August 2019 to scrap Articles 370 and 35A could once again be sent back to the capitals. It also appears that the army has been keen to improve relations in the commercial and economic fields. Sharif is a businessman and a move in this direction would appeal to him. Some tentative progress in this area could hence be expected. The cease fire at the LoC which came into force in February last year at the initiative of the security establishments of the two sides has held out. Some efforts could be made to expand this as well.
It would be prudent to keep expectations low about the future of India-Pakistan relations even with a change in the stewardship in Pakistan. The systemic challenges against normal relations with India are far too deeply ingrained in that country to be resolved by a mere change in the civilian leadership, and that too which will be in position for a maximum of a little more than a year.
The writer is executive council member, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, president, Institute of Global Studies, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre, and former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. The views expressed are personal.
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