India is keenly watching the evolving political situation in Pakistan as it readies to vote Saturday in pivotal national and provincial elections whose outcome has serious implications for its national security, economy, national integration and regional peace.
India is supportive of the democratic exercise as its western neighbour struggles to become what many say a “normal” state with an elected government transferring power to another after remaining five years in office for the first time in its 66 years of existence.
India has a huge stake in what comes out of the polls. India’s economy is eight times larger than Pakistan and it is estimated to be 16 times bigger by 2030. For its growth, India needs a peaceful external environment, a stable neighbour.
Strategic analysts and foreign policy wonks point to the three ongoing conflicts within Pakistan’s own borders — a separatist movement in the copper and gold-rich province bordering Afghanistan and Iran, a Taliban-led insurgency in its tribal areas and targeted killings of political workers of secular parties in the largest city Karachi. A conflict-ridden, nuclear-armed state, riven by jihadist and sectarian violence, would make a very dangerous neighbourhood, they say.
And what complicates the scenario further is the looming deadline of US drawdown in Afghanistan. They say India must be prepared for the fallout of any security vacuum that might accompany the pullout of the NATO forces from there.
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said last week it would be a “welcome thing” if the electoral process reflected the growing peace constituency in Pakistan. Khurshid hopes that the poll results could create the atmospherics necessary to carry forward the dialogue between the two countries.
“We work within a framework of atmospherics. Those were important. The substance and perception have to go hand in hand.”
Many pin their hopes on the new forces thrown up by changes in the Pakistani society over the years, but not spoken much about, which could be “potential game changers”.
Pakistan has a huge middle class that has doubled in the past two decades to constitute nearly 40 per cent of the population. And there is the country’s demographics– 46 percent of the population is aged between 15-29, who make up nearly 40 percent of the electorate.
“I think what is important is that more than who wins, there will be a change. Pakistan now has a strong middle class that feels and speaks for itself. This buttresses our democracy,” said novelist Mohsin Hamid on a visit here last month to promote his new book, “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.”
Media reports say the vast crowds cricketer turned politician Imran Khan has been attracting to his rallies are principally drawn from an increasingly assertive urban middle class and the youth to whom he has been making special efforts to reach out.
Also, the army, which has dictated Pakistan’s India policy, has lost much of its sheen within the country and its influence is said to be waning. Scholars like Ayesha Siddiqa have laid bare the military’s commercial enterprise and hollowness of the claims or the perception that the army which has ruled most part of Pakistan’s history is less corrupt than the Pakistani politicians.
“The army is not growing in proportion to the middle class…Army is no longer the only powerful middle-class institution. There is media. There is judiciary. I think army neither wants to nor perhaps could take control of the country; society has become too complex for that,” Hamid told the Economic Times.
And then there is the country’s “youth bulge” which many see with optimism, as an army of 13 million would be voting for the first time. This new crop of voters are witness to the winds of change blowing in Islamic world, the Arab Spring. Recent public opinion surveys indicated that most young people are concerned about the economy, high unemployment (two million joining the job market every year), soaring inflation (above 7 percent), power shortage that has left factories closed, and corruption.
Pakistan is also on the verge of running out of money. Last December, Saleem Mandviwalla, then finance minister, said Pakistan owed the International Monetary Fund 7.5 billion by 2015 and is evaluating a possible further loan from the Fund. Liberal Pakistanis say thier country is not like Iran or Egypt, which have oil reserves and vibrant tourism.
Political scientist and former ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi warns that Pakistan faces a demographic disaster if it fails to use its young people.
“So, the message to Pakistan’s next government is a very strong one. And that message is deal with the economy, otherwise young people will opt out of the system and when young people opt out of the system and lose faith then frankly, the future prospects for any country begin to look very bleak,” Lodhi told the Voice of America.
For the first time, Pakistan is seeing a triangular fight, with Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf of Pakistan (PTI) joining the fray with the traditional rivals Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif (PML-N). Opinion surveys and political observers say the election would throw up a coalition.
Indian officials say it won’t be productive to speculate and they would rather wait. Khurshid on his part said that nobody is absolutely certain what would happen. “What kind of coalition, the contours of the coalition and the nature of coalition, I think it is a bit early”.
But there is little doubt that their preference would be for a strong civilian government that can keep at bay both the army-intelligence axis and the extremists.
Salman Rushdie in his 1983 novel “Shame” has described Pakistan as “a failure of the dreaming mind”. The failed dream is the dream of imposing “one nation, one culture, one language” onto a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society.
But in the last 30 years, Pakistan has also changed a bit.
“I don’t think Pakistan will disintegrate. No. I think that it will be very difficult for a multi-clan, multi-religious, multi-language nation with Punjabi interests in Balochistan and Balochi investments in Sindh. It’s a country of entrenched interests and I don’t foresee them getting up one fine morning and unleashing mayhem against each other,” said Hamid.
(Saroj Mohanty can be contacted at [email protected]in)