No, Pakistan isn’t imploding but the political logjam is far from over – Times of India

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The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan
As Pakistan’s multi-pronged political crisis matured over the past year, the issue always was when something would give. We cannot say whether the drama of Imran Khan’s arrest, the civic unrest and violence that followed and his equally dramatic release was that moment. What appears likely is that the melodrama which played out over the past few days constitutes only a punctuation mark and the political logjam and confrontation, so characteristic of Pakistan in the past year, will continue.
Presently, the crisis reverberates around four poles: The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)-led government; Imran Khan, his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, and his street-level fan following; thirdly, the judiciary and, in particular, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; and finally, the military and the chief of army staff. In its bare bones, the current contestation in Pakistan and the role of this constellation is not new. From the 1990s, Pakistan has seen similar contests as political protagonists have battled each other in concert with the army and the judiciary. Imran Khan’s transition from being the army’s chosen favourite to its biggest headache is also part of an older script which other politicians have also enacted. Anti-army sentiment has also for long been a factor in Pakistan’s culture of political mobilisation.
This, of course, is not to say that nothing has changed. The violence that followed Imran Khan’s arrest had a certain raw intensity that appeared different. The protests also had an audacity which was new: that the residence of the Corps Commander in Lahore can be torched speaks for itself and is representative of the emotions and adulation that surround the PTI leader. There are conspiracy theories about how such a thing could take place at all and this has reinforced speculation about rifts within the army and the extent of support for Imran Khan amongst ex-servicemen. But the more important takeaway could well be that it makes the army look ineffectual and vindicates Imran Khan’s postures of defiance.
If that is unusual in Pakistan, what is also unusual is the uncharacteristic behaviour of the Supreme Court and its Chief Justice in taking positions that incline towards Imran and appear to be at odds with what the army wants. To some this is again suggestive of divisions within the army. It may well also be another sign of the continued politicisation and simultaneous erosion in standards of different institutions. Or it could be that the court, divided as it is, is simply caught in the political crossfire and every decision will be viewed through the lens of a deeply polarised polity. These are questions daily debated in Pakistan with no clear answers.
What are the main trends that we can identify as outside observers? What is most evident is that Imran Khan’s popularity and his street power continues to rattle both the government and the army. His self-image as representing a new kind of defiant politics means that he is prepared to use any means and this gives to him and his followers an unpredictable, almost eccentric, quality. His release on the orders of the Supreme Court within two days of being arrested and the subsequent bail may well have wrong-footed both the government and the army. But at the same time the release also defused a tense situation and prevented a possible escalation of street protests and the prospect of having to use force against the Pakistani public — the one thing that the army wishes most to avoid.
But the government’s efforts to book him with the army’s support on any of the various corruption charges against him will continue. These are precisely the means used against Nawaz Sharif to disqualify him from political office. Many in Pakistan feel that Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification was tantamount to making Pakistan’s politics structurally tilt towards Imran Khan and stability will not return till a balance is restored by undoing that disqualification. In this view, Imran Khan’s indictment and disqualification will be the necessary step towards a level-playing field. Other pressing issues including provincial and national elections will have to await the resolution of this basic contradiction. But there are also other clocks ticking in the background, not the least of which is a near crashed economy which urgently needs steroids in the form of a cash injection — but none appears likely.
Put together all this may not amount to implosion or civil war as some accounts in social media breathlessly suggest, but it certainly indicates a chronically confused situation where anything could trigger a constitutional crisis with no clear way out. For India this means a chaotic and dangerously divided neighbour. Perhaps the best-case scenario in the circumstances would be for the status quo in the currently minimal bilateral relationship to continue and that the ceasefire on the Line of Control holds.
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Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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