What is Pakistan’s status and what are India’s options?
From all accounts just when you thought that Pakistan has hit the rock bottom, it has found fresh strength to dig deeper. The hole has become so deep that it is becoming increasingly impossible for Pakistan to climb out of it. Where does it go from here?
Politically, Pakistan is at its weakest in its history. There is a weak government with a strident opposition. The Army, which is propping up the government, is itself on a weak political wicket. If the current trendline continues, Pakistan is likely to have a weak opposition with a toxic government headed by Kaptan sahib as and when the elections are held. He will make the situation even worse since he has been the root cause of Pakistan’s descent into this deep hole in recent times. When he started his tenure, he was on the same page with the Army. It is quite clear that in future he visualises his page contains the Army. He is not inclined to be on the Army’s page. Knowing the Pakistan Army, it will not cut a deal with any political party where it has to play second fiddle. If it has to continue to play the first fiddle, it will have to rig elections to keep the Kaptan decisively out. That will result in a weak government which will have to contend with a combatant Kaptan on a container. There will be no time to tend to Pakistan’s eternal woes. The third political alternative is that the Munirji takes over in classic Pakistan Army style. If that happens, the Kerry-Lugar Bill will ensure that no one helps Pakistan. Overall, Pakistan is up this long and deep political creek without a paddle.
The economic situation is as bleak as it can be. No gas. No food. No electricity. Interest rates hitting 17%. A US dollar costing 266 PKR. An impending slash in government salaries. Inflation at an all-time high, with the common man not being able to put food on his plate. As when the IMF resumes its program, price of essential items will spike across the board. The common man, who is already on the verge of starving, will be hit the hardest. Let us not forget that Pakistan is now a net food importer and irreversibly so. The recent power outage is symbolic of the darkness the nation faces eventually.
Social and human indicators in Pakistan have degenerated in recent times. Very simply put, the land has not been able to sustain the ever increasing mass of population. The basic rights and services which a common man expects from his nation and government are being denied increasingly in Pakistan. The nation cannot cater for the aspirations of its huge Youth Bulge. There is widespread simmering discontent beneath the surface. This is evident from the ethno-societal movements like Haq Do Tehreek in Gwadar, Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement in Pashtun areas, Mohajir problems in Karachi and woes of neglected minorities in POK. The concern of informed opinion is that neglect of people in their own space which has bred discontent will eventually lead to widespread disorder, resulting in anarchy.
Nothing signifies this more poignantly than the fate of those millions who were affected by the flooding when 1/3 of Pakistan was submerged six months back. As per the International Rescue Committee (IRC), food insecurity and malnutrition has intensified across the country. Further, an estimated 14.6 million people continue to be in need of food assistance, including 8.6 million people who are experiencing an extreme level of food insecurity and are facing impossible decisions on how to cope skipping meals and selling off assets. This dire situation for 1/5 of the nation will endure since it is now established that Pakistan is vulnerable to Climate Change as it lurches towards absolute water scarcity. The combined effect of neglect of agriculture, water security and turning a blind eye to the foreseeable adverse impact of climate change leaves Pakistan with a perforated begging bowl which no one is prepared to fill. Even if someone does, it will leak out into the coffers of the Army and elites who will siphon it out of the country into their personal accounts. This long-term trend line will not change.
The fundamental trouble with Pakistan has been that it has always lived beyond its means. The consensual opinion in Pakistan is that its major national achievement has been to live off other people’s money and indulge in military adventurism while being a rentier economy of an imaginary frontline state. When Pakistan broke the “shackles of slavery” by ensuring its protégé the Taliban were put in power in Afghanistan, it also ensured that the United States had to withdraw from there in (almost) disgrace. The US will not forget this national sleight. It will keep Pakistan in a state of suspended animation bordering on beggary. On the other hand, China, its higher than Himalayas friend, has only put Pakistan in a debt trap out of which it will not recover. The CPEC, which was the basis of walking into the Chinese debt trap, has failed. Instead of being a gateway to prosperity, it has shackled Pakistan into being a Chinese vassal. Pakistan’s third benefactor(s)—Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates have made it abundantly clear that all monetary assistance will be conditional. The days of Pakistani freeloading are permanently over.
The irony of Pakistan is that the Taliban, which it created and put in power in Kabul, has become its nemesis apart from being a leaky economic burden. The unadulterated support of the Taliban to TTP has historical and ethnic roots in Pashtun nationalism and will not vanish. As a result, Pakistan faces a deteriorating situation along the Durand line from TTP and Baloch rebels. The situation there is almost akin to a civil war and poses an existential threat to Pakistan. This makes Pakistan internally unstable. This instability is compounded by an increasingly radical society where extreme interpretation of religion has assumed centre stage. Official patronage to religious extremism and a jihadi culture has taken deep roots in Pakistan to create internal instability beyond the capacity of any Army or a civilian government in Pakistan, now or in future.
At this point of time, Pakistan finds itself boxed in without an escape route. A viable way out of its mess is to mend fences with India. There is an opinion that Pakistan should give up its unattainable dreams of annexing Kashmir and mend its fences with India. However, there is also a strong opinion that mending fences should be conditional to India re-instating Article 370 and restoring the status of Kashmir to that of pre August 2019. While the opinion of talks and mending fences with India is a matter of debate, what is not contended is the rise of India. Everyone in Pakistan universally acknowledges that India has risen far above and is beyond the reach of their country.
It is in this context and framework that India must consider its options. There is a view that we should respond to Pakistan’s overtures notwithstanding their incredulity. Last week I put out an allegorical and satirical blog titled Pakistan in Crisis : Sinbad of Modern Times.
I was labelled as being a hard-line right winger since I had suggested that in the circumstances, the wisest course was to keep silent and let Pakistan find its own way. In this context I would like to point out that irrespective of the fact whether I am a right or a left winger, whom should one speak to in Pakistan? A weak government which is transitory at best? An Army which is internally divided, not in full political control and retains full vitriol of revenge and hatred against India? A toxic opposition whose only intent is to get into power? In the current state of political, social, environmental and economic chaos in Pakistan, any overture by India will be used by its political class for electoral advantages and not for establishing peace with India. In any case, any agreement with Pakistan in the current milieu has very little chance of being implemented or surviving even the tenancy of the current government. The reactionary forces in Pakistan will torpedo any semblance of talks with India. Lastly, is it worth the while to talk to a Pakistan which does not trust itself, far less trust India?
So what does India do? For the time being India needs to wait and watch with studied silence. In the meanwhile, continue monitoring the situation in Pakistan along with other interested countries and organisations. Lay down some guidelines which others need to bear in mind when dealing with Pakistan, if they are to develop good equations with India. Also, India needs to be in dialogue with the international community to prepare contingency plans should the situation in Pakistan go underwater. Simultaneously, India needs to keep channels of communication open with Taliban. While we may not recognise the regime, we must be open and prepared to deal with them on certain issues. Very evidently, a window of opportunity has opened up for India to attend to the Kashmir issue in an internal political framework with minimal external influence. There is also a need to tamp down on hot heads who seek to annex POK militarily. However, there is a need to commence a political process to revert POK into the Indian fold. In my opinion, the unfolding situation in Pakistan is a great opportunity for India to continue with its development and consolidate its rise. We should not derail it through a hasty outreach to Pakistan or by showing undue magnanimity. We can consider something when we are approached formally. That too after due deliberation and weighing consequences. Pakistan’s problems are its making. Let them sort it out. When we could live with a strong, deceitful and aggressive Pakistan for 75 years, we can live with a weak one for a few years more.
Lt Gen P.R. Shankar PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retired) is a retired Director General of Artillery. The General Officer is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. His articles are available at www.gunnersshot.com