A general election amid political turmoil, mounting pressure to measure up to US’s expectations on fighting terror and the economic corridor with China—2018 will be a tough year for Pakistan
THE PAST AND THE PRESENT frequently collide in Pakistan. The 70th year since the founding of Pakistan was also the 40th anniversary of General Zia-ul-Haq’s coup and the 10th of the siege and storming of Lal Masjid. The shadows of these seminal events have remained to interrupt Pakistan’s endeavors to script a new history. As the order came from the Supreme Court on July 28, disqualifying Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, many in Pakistan wondered, with some merit, whether they were watching the re-run of an old clip. The prime minister, the court held, was in conflict with articles of the constitution that provided that the people’s representatives be ‘sadeeq’—truthful—and ‘ameen’—righteous. These were provisions introduced by General Zia as he sought to make Pakistan’s constitution conform to his notions of Islamic piety. Sharif himself, as he mobilised support against his ouster, referred to the parallels with the Maulvi Tamizuddin case of 1955. In the latter, the ‘doctrine of state necessity’ was invoked by the Supreme Court as it ruled against a petition against the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly. The 2017 verdict that unseated the prime minister was thus inevitably seen in the larger context of Pakistan’s history in the 1950s, 1980s and 1990s as judicial interventions terminated parliamentary tenures.
Many argued the opposite—Pakistan’s deeprooted corruption could only be cleansed if the broom
began at the very top. Amidst these competing narratives and slogans, the role of the Pakistan military was obviously central: Sharif ’s tenure was throughout characterised with civil-military turbulence through three chiefs of army staff. If his ouster then evoked all of Pakistan’s tangled history with its military, the fact also is that a larger opportunity had passed Pakistan by. Had Sharif completed his full tenure, it would have been a first in Pakistan’s history.
Terrorist attacks regularly punctuated Pakistan’s political chronology through the year. While the overall incidence and intensity of terrorist attacks has declined since 2015, their persistence suggests that, despite claims to the contrary by the Pakistan army, some regrouping of extremist groups and their mentors is under way. The targets in most of these attacks were also predictable: Shias, police and army personnel, and soft public targets. Not that Sunni Muslims were spared: the attack on the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh was part of a continuum that includes the 2005 carnage at the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad and the 2010 attack on Data Darbar in Lahore. These illustrate the deep-rooted animosities of many of the terrorist groups to sites of popular Islam and to the devout Barelvis who frequent them.
But the Barelvis were in the news not just as victims of terrorist attacks. In November, a sit-in protest in Islamabad demonstrated their street power as they disrupted life in the capital city and forced the government into negotiation and, finally, capitulation. At the vanguard of this was the Tehreeki-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, a group that had arisen from the cult following that developed around Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of a Punjab governor in 2011. The Barelvis are numerically preponderant in Pakistan, but lacked the political clout associated with the Wahhabis, Deobandis and Ahle Hadith sects. Each of these sects has benefitted from army patronage from the time of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s and then had consolidated its position through participation in cross-border terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. The Barelvis possibly felt increasingly marginalised and disempowered. In any event, the recent display of street power announces their dramatic arrival on the larger political scene. The monopoly of the Islamic space in mainstream politics— held by parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan—will now be challenged by the Barelvis.
Inevitably, the emergence of this new political force has led to questions about the role of the Pakistan military. Possibly, there is a tactical element at play, with the aim being to weaken Sharif and his party as much as possible before the next election. But equally, the terrorist violence inflicted by groups of a Wahhabi or Deobandi persuasion within Pakistan itself has also led to some rethink within the Pakistani establishment about the need to develop alternatives, and the Barelvis figure in these calculations. In any event, the incipient Barelvi resurgence may be one of 2017’s longer term bequests to Pakistan’s history.
A non-political event in 2017, but with wider ramifications, merits recall. Pakistan re-entered census history this year, holding a countrywide count for the first time in almost two decades. This was, given the state to which Pakistan’s internal security situation had deteriorated in the period 2007-2015, a considerable administrative and political achievement. The results of the census were, however, startling. Between 1998 and 2017, the population grew at an average annual rate of 2.4 per cent. In brief, efforts to reduce population growth have been largely ineffective. The sheer size of the population at 207 million has strong future implications, both for the country and the region. Pakistan is now the fifth most populous country in the world, but with only the 40th biggest economy. Historical comparisons illustrate this point dramatically. In 1971, the erstwhile East Pakistan had a population greater than its western part. Today, Bangladesh’s population is 30 million less than Pakistan’s.
Pakistan’s external environment remained unfavourable with a not unfamiliar turbulence
CONTINUING TERROR ATTACKS HINT AT A REGROUPING OF EXTREMIST GROUPS IN PAKISTAN
in relations with India and Afghanistan. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and within the Gulf Cooperation Council formed another axis of uncertainty. But by far the most dramatic of change came in Pakistan’s relations with the United States. The Trump presidency has initiated intense US disapproval and pressure over Pakistan’s Afghan and India policies and for the sanctuary it provides to terrorist groups. President Trump’s first tweet of 2018 both summed up 2017 and provided a roadmap of what is going to follow. Pakistan’s response through 2017 was a mixture of public defiance and a quieter diplomatic effort to meet US expectations at least halfway on Afghanistan. But the US president’s latest broadside underlines that this approach has not worked. Nevertheless, a purely domestic impulse to adopt defiant postures against the US should not be underestimated. While 2017 certainly was the year when Pakistan saw the most intense pressures of the past decade-and-a-half, the events of 2011—another annus horribilis of Pakistan-US relations—are worth recalling: the Raymond Davies episode, the detection and killing of Osama bin Laden and a NATO attack that killed over 20 Pakistani soldiers. In 2012, Pakistan had responded with a prolonged closure of NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, underlining the difficulties of dealing with a country that has a population of 200 million, is a nuclear power and has a location that makes its isolation difficult.
As US pressure grows and takes its toll, Pakistan will draw sustenance from being in a camp that includes Russia and China and will play its cards accordingly. Yet its domestic flux will also affect all its external relationships, not just with India and the US but also China. It can reasonably be expected that 2018 will be a testing year for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—the fact is that regardless of the support that the Pakistan military may provide, the implementation of large projects requires a stable political environment.
For many, perhaps most, in Pakistan, it is a given that the US and India now act in concert. The US designation of the Kashmir-centric Hizb-ul-Mujahideen as a global terrorist organisation in August 2017 cemented such views. Relations with India remained at a low plateau, further eroded by regular clashes on the Line of Control, plummeting numbers of visas issued and toxic levels of rhetoric. The release of Jamaatud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed from custody a few days before the anniversary of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks symbolised the unresolved dilemmas of the relationship with India. All this is a familiar repetitive pattern, but as always in India-Pakistan relations, there is also always something new. This new development was India moving the International Court of Justice over the death sentence decreed by military court martial for Kulbhushan Jadhav, an Indian national in Pakistan’s custody on charges of terrorism. For most Pakistanis, the importance of the Jadhav case is that it enables claiming an elusive moral equivalence with India in so far as the charge of supporting terrorism goes. The debate on this issue, both in India and Pakistan, revolved around the departure from the strict bilateralism that has been India’s preferred approach for decades. There may well be a deeper subtext here revolving around the contrast of the confidence with which India interfaces with the world today and the suspicion and mentality of siege that characterise Pakistan’s approach.
The year ended with Pakistan pensively completing 70 years as an independent country. The civil-military tangle remains unresolved as general elections loom. The political bloodletting has not spared any of the mainstream parties or their leaders. Their loss of credibility will cede further space to Islamists of various hues—the Deobandis, Barelvis and a range of extremist groups like the JuD keen to mainstream themselves. The election will moreover be fought in the background of Pakistan’s military returning to the centre of its polity. Domestically, the narratives of accountability versus civilian supremacy will contest each other, animated respectively by Imran Khan and the Sharif family. Nevertheless, the election in mid-2018 will be important also because the architecture it throws up will reveal the shape of things to come with regard to India too.
For India, 2018 straddles the Nepal election of 2017 and its own general election in 2019. In 2018 itself, apart from Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh (in January 2019) and possibly the Maldives go to polls. Afghanistan too will have parliamentary elections. Each of these countries presents its own sets of issues and challenges. Nevertheless, each will also look to us and try to decipher the script we intend to follow. For India, the choices, especially with Pakistan, remain difficult, and mean choosing from a menu of bad options. But it is useful to recall May 2014 when a cluster of electoral changes produced a South Asian moment at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan at the swearing-in of a new government. Going back into history is of course not an option. It never has been. But looking back while trying to construct a new script is not a bad idea. In any case, the ‘secret’ meeting in Bangkok in 2017-end between the two national security advisors underlines that older scripts in South Asia are usually put aside temporarily, but never shredded.
TRUMP’S FIRST TWEET OF 2018 SUGGESTS WHAT WILL FOLLOW, BUT DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE PAKISTAN’S IMPULSE TO DEFY THE US
T.C.A. Raghavan is a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan