Muhammad Najm Akbar
Amid yet another bout of instability, Pakistan must consider what she has won or lost so far in these extremely turbulent five months of this year. A sub-regional perspective might offer some help to make sense of the situation Pakistan traverses at the moment.
Pakistan’s prime rival in the sub-region has not been alien to some of the ravages of extremism, resistance, and bigotry. She has nonetheless been persistent in her democratic journey. While Pakistan’s political leadership battled a change of government and chose to undermine her parliamentary institutions, India strengthened them further. In February-March, the Indian Election Commission held Vidhan Sabha elections in five states, in seven phases in the most populous of them. While the election results disappointed many, they also spelled out the strength of a functional democratic system. Delhi-based Aam Admi Party expanded its operational range to the sub-regional level with a sweeping victory, taking ninety-two out of 117 seats in Punjab. The Indian National Congress failed to reverse an unending series of setbacks. In UP, the BJP narrative of development and direct welfarism amalgamated with communitarian politics defeated the opposition. SP and BSP failed to capitalize on the rising unemployment, farmers’ movement in the neighboring state of Haryana, and growing resentment of law and order issues.
The Muslim vote in UP witnessed relatively better representation in the Vidhan Sabha. With thirty-three seats, they have nine more than in 2017. This comes to eight percent representation in the state assembly for one-fifth of the UP population. The Muslim vote suffered, however, from its division between BSP and SP which was potentially detrimental to the chances of success in over two dozen constituencies.
This was another successful experience for EVM offering a platform for voting expeditiously, serving 184 million strong electorates of these five states. The BJP sustained its winning streak in Manipur, Goa, and Uttarakhand as well. Her electoral juggernaut refocused its energies on the next round of state assembly elections, beginning its campaign in Gujrat.
While India reinforced its parliamentary institutions, Pakistan went the wrong way. The constitutional exercise of a vote of no confidence, the fifth in Pakistan, became a divisive and injurious blow to her institutional integrity. The opposition had been planning for months before they tabled the motion on March 8, 2022. They aimed at switching seats with the treasury benches within the Parliament. The then ruling party unconstitutionally dragged her feet on holding a debate and a vote in the Assembly. Within three weeks of the motion and facing dissensions within its ranks, the narrative of the regime’s spin masters underwent a radically precarious three sixty degrees of change. By the end of March, they came to view it as a manipulated onslaught against Pakistan’s independent foreign policy, selectively interpreting events and developments. In a dramatic move on April 3, the Deputy Speaker of the Assembly invoked Article 5 of the constitution and declared the motion a conspiratorial act against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan. He dismissed the motion without a vote declaring its movers, representing almost two-thirds of Pakistan’s electorate, as perfidious traitors and puppets of foreign powers. The ex-Prime Minister then used his restored power to dissolve the Assembly, engaging the process for early elections. The Supreme Court stepped in to restore some respect for the constitution. Its verdict of April 7, 2022, nullified the Deputy Speaker’s ruling and restored the situation ante, requiring strict compliance with the constitutional provisions about the vote of no confidence. The ruling party stretched the implementation of the court verdict to its limits but had to abide by it finally. Before the vote took place on April 9, however, her members walked out of the session and announced resignations from their seats in the Assembly.
The anticipated switch from the Treasury to the opposition benches failed to occur as PTI, the defeated ruling party, took the politics back to its favorite playground, the streets. The PTI politics has since then turned into sustained defiance of the constitutional norms. The President dithered in administering the oath to the new government. He has refused to honor the new Prime Minister’s powers to appoint Governors of his choice. The Speaker of the Punjab Assembly, a PTI candidate for the office of the Chief Minister, refused to hold elections until the Lahore High Court intervened. Once the elections took place, despite all the mayhem, the Governor refused to respect the verdict of the Assembly. The President and the Governor disregarded the Lahore High Court’s instructions to arrange the oath taking. The Court finally had to designate a Federal official to undertake the task. The Governor made a ludicrous attempt to restore power to an ousted Chief Minister. The Speaker of the Punjab Assembly in the meantime has continued to delay a vote on a no-confidence motion pending against him.
Pakistan’s Kashmir-focused foreign policy suffered further setbacks. Pakistan has been a staunch advocate of the right to self-determination and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nation states. Surprisingly, however, she decided to abstain from a UNGA resolution condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine on March 3, 2022. Addressing Islamabad Security Dialogue on April 1, 2022, Pakistan’s army chief recognized the similarities in the defense needs of smaller states (like Ukraine and Pakistan) facing an aggressive neighbor. He appreciated the agility and mobility of the Ukrainian armed forces as a beacon of hope for smaller countries facing an aggressor. And yet, Pakistan defied the logic of its historic commitment to the UN charter by not only legally abandoning an aggressed state but also jeopardizing the potential support of three members of the UN Security Council and EU in a critical moment of need for international legal and material support.
India continued to defy allegations of disregarding human rights, UN resolutions, and public opinion in Jammu and Kashmir, divided in 2019 into two separate Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Her three-year-old policy of fully integrating Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian constitutional structure continued nonstop. Consolidating the steps it had initiated with the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, the Union government initiated redistricting of the Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory. Mid-March, the redistricting commission announced new delimitations over objections from the opposition. Jammu and Kashmir, excluding the Union Territory of Ladakh, will now have a ninety-seat assembly, 43 for Jammu and 47 for Kashmir. Jammu gains six while Kashmir gets only one additional seat. The opposition in Kashmir has been protesting against this “gerrymandering” but they will have to face the polls, if they decide to participate, using this electoral map.
On the public relations front, the BJP government extended official patronage to Kashmir Files, a film depicting a manipulative version of communal relations in the valley released mid-March. They offered political endorsement nationally and financial incentives to the film in several BJP-run states. End April, the Indian Prime Minister paid his first visit to the Territory since 2019. He vaunted major upward trends for foreign direct investment in the Territory; laid the foundation stone for a major interstate highway and inaugurated a solar plant in addition to several other projects. He addressed some 25,000 panchayat representatives to celebrate the National Panchayat Raj Day at the solar-powered Kashmiri village of Palli. End May, an Indian Anti-Terrorism Court convicted Yasin Malik, a major Kashmiri leader, for financing terrorism and sedition.
On the foreign policy front, while India sustained its historical strategic and economic relationship with Russia, it also reinforced its crucial role in the Quad. In May, the Indian Prime Minister attended a summit meeting with the leaders of Japan, Australia, and the US in Tokyo. Despite becoming a part of a regional partnership aimed at balancing out the Chinese influence, India continued to build on her bilateral trade with her giant neighbor. In the first quarter of 2022, this trade reached $ 31 billion, a fifteen percent increase over the same period last year, with the balance of trade overwhelmingly in favor of China.
Pakistan’s political ecosystem remains mired in massive allegations of treason and horse-trading. In the run-up to the vote, two long marches crisscrossed the country. The ruling party marched through the province of Sindh. A leading political party covered a longer distance, from Karachi to Islamabad. Scuttling her life in the Parliament, PTI has since March held several public rallies and accused the government of violating her constitutional rights to hold a long-term sit-in in the federal capital, a repeat of her 2014 performance.
There are deeper fissures that Khan’s downfall and vengeful anger underscore. Pakistan’s governance structure does not offer its emerging leadership any formative phases. They have to learn governance on the go if they are willing. Imran Khan defied the established political forces to rise to the highest office. Like many including several now, he had no governance experience before he held the federal executive role. Pakistan’s political structure has another inherent weakness. It does not reach the grassroots levels. Performance, therefore, eludes leaders like Khan as a criterion of success. He will probably not resume his Parliamentary role unless Trump-like the next elections go his way. Pakistan’s noisy and overpopulated streets in the meantime will continue to buzz with politics of mutual recriminations and fears of civil unrest. The strategic and economic interests of Pakistan confronting structural inefficiencies will remain vulnerable but that does not seem to make a blip on the radar screens of power-seekers at the moment. They might be looking further southeast and thinking that their apocalypse is not as severe as Sri Lanka’s.