Prime Minister Imran Khan’s defeat in the no-confidence motion is perhaps the first in Pakistan’s history. But this fact is perhaps not as significant as what has been reiterated about the political stability of elected regimes: No elected regime in Islamabad has managed to complete its term since the country was formed.
Khan, who had a remarkable political career in a short time, became Prime Minister in 2018. He was instrumental in single-handedly building Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). From just one seat in parliament in 2002, his party took its total to 116 in the 2018 election. By organizing agitations on an anti-corruption agenda, he created a new base of support. His campaigns reached educated youth and he succeeded in projecting the PTI as an alternative third force capable of bringing about changes to the feudal and dynastic domination of the past. However, the 2018 elections have been questioned for their fairness. It is strongly believed that he came to power due to the political engineering of the military establishment.
His politics reflected an eclectic set of agendas – Khan mixed his anti-corruption agenda with soft Islamism and anti-Westernism. He spoke of transforming Pakistan into an egalitarian, modern, Islamic and democratic welfare state. He gave the slogan of “Naya Pakistan” and promised to bring about change. This vision of a “Naya Pakistan” has been shattered for some time now. He turned out to be no different from other politicians when he dissolved parliament instead of facing the motion of no confidence and plunged the country into a constitutional crisis. Its claim to be different from the existing political leadership and to practice its own politics is now seen as hypocritical.
Khan’s tenure in power has been a difficult one. He came to power at a time when Pakistan was facing serious economic difficulties – it was on the verge of a balance of payments crisis. Foreign exchange reserves were very low. The high trade deficit has hurt the current account deficit and foreign exchange reserves. Pakistan’s total external debt and liabilities have since reached $91 billion, or 31% of GDP. Even then, he continued to make populist promises like creating 10 million jobs in five years, building five million homes for the homeless, and more. His idea of an Islamic welfare state also required large public spending on health and education. But Khan had no pragmatic economic policy. He showed a superficial understanding of the problems facing Pakistan. Its economic mismanagement has created enormous hardship for the people. The poor state of the economy has diminished his popularity. There are also contradictions in his worldview. His populism has been pierced by the harsh realities of governance.
Ultimately, it was Imran Khan’s relations with the army and the opposition that contributed to his downfall. His standoff with the military over the appointment of a new ISI leader and his differences over foreign policy issues have created a rift with the military establishment. Faced with difficult challenges from Pakistan, Khan was unable to build consensual politics of any kind and drag the opposition with him. He resorted to demagoguery to undermine the opposition. The military took a neutral stance in the opposition’s attempt to constitutionally overthrow Khan. It is difficult to predict whether Khan and the PTI will remain a formidable force in Pakistani politics. Although he is still believed to have popular support, it is unclear how he will fare in electoral politics without military backing. Given his self-image and his ego, will he be able to rebuild bridges with the military? Can he reach out to sections of the opposition, which is necessary in coalition politics? We must remember that the 2018 mandate probably did not reflect actual popular support for the PTI.
Questions have been raised about the role of the military in the current political crisis. Is this a sign that the military is withdrawing from politics? While the military remains dominant in the power structure in Pakistan, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is unlikely to regain power. Pakistan has become a difficult country to govern. Even though the military does not wield power directly, it remains the final arbiter of Pakistani politics, as the 2018 general elections showed. Years of social and political engineering have unleashed forces in Pakistan that created structural incapacities to address social, economic and security challenges. Neither the political class nor the military have solutions to these problems.
The vision of a Naya Pakistan is shattered. It is the return to old Pakistan with its intermittent political instability, its difficult economic challenges and an army which will not allow the political class to govern. The challenges for the new prime minister will be no different. It has to deal with these structural problems. There’s not much light at the end of the tunnel. The military might sit back for a while, but they will make sure they can decide the outcome. The political class will have to regroup so that governance is the main agenda of political regimes. Pakistan needs a major shift in policy and foreign policy. It must straighten out its relations with external powers and its neighbours. Cutting support for religious activists and improving relations with India will help deal with its economic challenges.
The author is Professor and Official Director of Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi