The dramatic developments in Pakistan presage more changes to its political structure than ever in its history This is the impression we gather from senior R&AW officials as well as others from the media who know the country very well.

There is concern in India at the rising popularity of Imran Khan, a past and, very possibly, future Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is stridently anti-Indian, but this is par for the course. He needs to present himself both as a religious conservative and anti-Indian to make political headway in a radicalised and polarised society.

What India needs to fear is a takeover of Pakistan by extremists along with its considerable nuclear weapons pile. India should not make the mistake the US specialises in — of undermining democracy in countries across the world by backing strong men and their armed forces against their peoples. It never works. A popularly elected government, even one led by Imran Khan with the generals out of the way is the best bet for Pakistan’s future wellbeing and peace in the sub-continent.

Extremist threat

For all his popularity if Imran Khan were to take over following an electoral triumph it is very likely that he will be challenged and even deposed by Islamic extremists capitalising on the backing of a desperate people driven to the wall by corruption, misgovernment, and an all-intrusive secret service. This is what India should strive to prevent.

On this there are lessons to be learnt from Iran. There, a vain monarch presiding over a corrupt society and a venal secret service, Savak, torturing and killing thousands led to the popular revolt which brought a Islamic fundamentalist, Ayatollah Khomeini, to power in Iran in 1979. The parallels of what happened to Iran then and developments in today’s Pakistan are eerily similar.

But who draws parallels when short-termism is the order of the day? Suddenly for many Indians Pakistan’s generals are very appealing. There is a hope that they will wrestle Imran to the ground. How dangerously flawed such a view is! It is its generals who have brought Pakistan to its knees.

As The Economist of January 12, 2019 in an article titled ‘Pakistan’s Army Is to Blame for The Poverty of The Country’s 208m Citizens,’ observed ‘Since the founding of Pakistan in 1947, the army has not just defended state ideology but defined it, in two destructive ways. The country exists to safeguard Islam, not a tolerant, prosperous citizenry. And the army, believing the country to be surrounded by enemies, promotes a doctrine of persecution and paranoia.

‘The terrorists the Pakistan army engaged to bleed India have morphed into a very destructive force bent on taking over Pakistan. Brown University’s Cost of War Project estimates over 60,000 Pakistanis have been killed by terrorism since the early 2000s.

The best bet for India is to find common ground with others rooting for popular civilian leadership to emerge in Pakistan even if that means the return of Imran Khan as head of government. A good start on this can be made at the summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) due to be held in New Delhi in July.

While highlighting cross-border terrorism will be inescapable at the SCO summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will do well to also send across a positive message of India’s support to the people of Pakistan by announcing generous humanitarian aid for them to tide over the havoc of last year’s catastrophic floods which submerged a third of their country. He could also surprise everyone by asking other members of the SCO to join India in putting together a programme to stabilise a Pakistan clearly in distress. The numbers tell the story.

Economic woes

Pakistan’s inflation is running at nearly 36 per cent and worsening. It is hard pressed to get the financial infusion it requires from the IMF or even the Chinese. It has no way of augmenting its severely depleted forex reserves. At around $4 billion, this is only an eighth of what Bangladesh has. Pakistan’s debt burden, close to $180 billion, is way beyond its capacity to service.

By being generous to such a Pakistan, India would have laid the ground for engaging productively with popular governments of whatever hue in future there. and not necessarily only one likely to be led by Imran Khan, the most popular Pakistani leader, since Jinnah himself.

A good reason for India not to bet on Pakistan’s generals to be a stabilising force is the doubt whether the existing military leadership is carrying its rank and file with it. It very probably is not. How else does one explain the violent attack on military establishments in Pakistan best captured in an article, Don’t Blame Imran Alone, in the Dawn newspaper of May 13, 2023 by the respected Pakistani physicist and prominent public intellectual, Pervez Hoodbhoy.

As he wrote, “While Khan has focused solely on the army’s efforts to dislodge him, his violent supporters supplement these accusations by disputing its unearned privileges. When they stormed the GHQ in Rawalpindi, attacked an ISI facility in Pindi, and set ablaze the corps commander’s house in Lahore, they did the unimaginable. But, piquing everyone’s curiosity, no tanks confronted the enraged mobs. No self-defence was visible on social media videos.” Clearly Pakistan’s army is out of its depth to take on a popular whirlwind like Imran. One needs to applaud him for his courage.

However flawed Imran is, he has broken a once popular army’s mystique. India should be on the right side of history by standing up for democracy that Imran is demanding and not Pakistan’s generals who wish to smother it. Our best bet for peace and prosperity in the sub-continent is a Pakistan under popular civil rule with the soldiers tucked away in their barracks.

The writer is a columnist who taught public policy and contemporary history at IISc Bengaluru