Is Pakistan staring at the prospect of a radical Islamist with possible connections to major terror incidents and a bounty on his head, becoming its Prime Minister in the next few years? The answer is in the affirmative and its distinct possibility is no more just a hypothesis for academic indulgence but a profound reality that India and others may have to confront, in the years to come. The tell-tale signs of radical Islamist organisations taking the political centre-stage in Pakistan and gradually pushing aside the already fragile, spineless, corrupt-to-the-core civilian parties to the edge are evident all around.
Rawalpindi's next move
Successive Civilian Governments of Pakistan have popped up through sham elections, remaining forever subservient to the Islamist groups and at the mercy of the Pakistan Army. They had given up their independence and the right to govern Pakistan through Constitutional propriety, long back. They merely exist to follow orders coming from Rawalpindi and have been a willing edifice more for the purpose of giving Pakistan the semblance of a democratic state to the outer world than anything else. But even that, unfortunately, is changing now. Hafiz Saeed's statement that he intends to fight elections in Pakistan in 2018 is the final nail in the coffin.
In the last week of November, when Hafiz Saeed was released from detention, it did not come as a surprise to many. In the first place, the detention earlier in January this year of Hafiz Saeed and four of his closest aides was itself a sham as he had continued with his nefarious activities from his secured enclave. Three months later, Pakistan dropped the Anti-Terrorism Act clause under which he was first detained. It was replaced by the Public Safety Law. Release thereafter was just a matter of time. Meanwhile, Hafiz Saeed's Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) launched its political outfit Milli Muslim League. In certain terms, Hafiz Saeed is almost like a de facto Prime Minister of Pakistan with the complete backing of Pakistan's military establishment and at any point of time, wielding more clout within Pakistan than any elected or selected Prime Minister of the country can ever fathom, the present one included. Even though he has been detained again under pressure, he continues to be free, emboldened with more confidence to aspire big.
That Pakistan is eventually moving towards giving political legitimacy to radical Islamist groups was also evident from the manner in which the ultra-religious political organisations like Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, Pakistan Sunni Tehreek and Tehreek-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat took Islamabad to ransom on the issue of some alleged changes in the Election Bill 2017. It also vindicated the enormous clout they wield and the manner in which they can challenge the writ of the state at any time and any place, even as the state remained hesitant to use force to dispel the mob. Later, it did call in the Pakistan Army after a reprimand from the Islamabad High Court for failing to quell the protest. The Pakistan Army willingly stepped it to demonstrate to the people how it is the last resort and eternal saviour of the state, every time the civilian administration fails.
That the Pakistani civilian administration is the weakest of the three parallel establishments that run Pakistan, the Army and the Jihadi organisations being the other two, was vindicated once again by its meek submission to the dictums of the ultra-religious organisations and also its failure to act either against Hafiz Saeed or Masood Azhar. In both cases, needless to say, there is an invisible hand of the Pakistan Army which prevents any hard-line approach against the Islamist organisations. The grim reality is that no political entity can survive in Pakistan by daring to walk off the beaten path of continuing with implicit support for LeT and JeM or ultra-religious organisations.
Will international pressure work?
The moot question now is whether any international pressure of sanctions or other conventional approaches like warnings of withholding financial aid can sway Pakistan away from this perilous voyage towards having radical Islamists eventually gaining the upper hand in the Parliament and provincial assemblies there. The answer, once again, is in the negative. Barring certain small enclaves of Islamabad and Lahore, no Pakistani really cares much for the economic collapse of Pakistan. Systematic indoctrination and an environment of extremist preaching have made issues like economic well-being secondary to them. Sanctions would just hasten the process of economic collapse, much to the glee of Islamist groups, who would find the ground more fertile to complete the takeover of the state.
Besides, USA's clout now has a diminishing marginal utility in Pakistan which, in spite of a self-defeating CPEC deal, would be too happy to fall further in the lap of China in case the taps from the US dry up. For years, the US had ignored the rise of political Islam in Pakistan just as it had turned a blind eye to the activities of LeT, so long as Pakistan was a willing partner of the US in the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan meanwhile only knows too well what would happen if they unleash upon LeT and JeM what they did to the Taliban since 9/11. It is bearing the brunt of Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) every day, for being its mentor and annihilator as and when whichever suited. Fighting a bitter and a never-ending battle against a self-created Frankenstein in its western front, it would rather give political legitimacy to LeT and hand over the establishment on a palate rather than attempting to toe the US line again and risk a déjà vu on the eastern part too.
For the Pakistan Army which always had a very uncomfortable relationship with successive civilian governments, intermitted by a military coup and army rule, it would not be too surprising if it prefers any ultra-religious organisation or even a terror group to come and take the mantle at the helm. After all, it is the Pakistan Army which has incubated, mentored, nurtured, funded and protected them for decades.
Pakistan: China's Vietnam in making?
While there is always an unpredictability tag associated with the Trump Administration, it would not be too surprising if the US shuts the financial taps altogether and moves away, lock stock and barrel, from the Af-Pak region in the near future and concentrates more on East Asia. All that would be left would be a slightly better version of Somalia for India to deal with. While China continues with its tacit support for the likes of JeM chief, Masood Azhar, for keeping the Pakistan Army happy and for making sure that its own assets in CEPC do not become terror targets, what it is still not realising is how the quagmire of Pakistan may eventually become Vietnam for China, a bottomless pit from where it can neither move out nor settle in.
As economic collapse and complete marginalisation of civilian entities reach conclusion, the possibility of separatist movements from Balochistan and elsewhere gaining steam cannot be ruled out. Pakistan would thus head for a fission kind of reaction internally.
What should India do?
There may not be any textbook solution on how to deal with this evolving and worsening Pakistan, whose radicalisation is now almost complete. The confidence and influence of the civilian political leadership in Pakistan is at its nadir. The level of entrenchment of radical elements within the Pakistani defence establishment and their reciprocal support for the likes of Hafiz Saeed through attempts of political mainstreaming of JuD may create an apocalyptic situation in the coming decade, which is expected to ring more alarm bells on the issue of safety of nuclear weapons and the possibility of their misuse.
India, in such a scenario, not only needs to bolster its ballistic missile defence shield but also work towards plugging the gaps in border security and its internal security architecture. Attempts at a repeat of attacks like 26/11 or something more sinister cannot be ruled out and India needs to prepare to fight it out on its own, without expectation from others. Let this be clear, India does not fight USA's battles in Iraq or Afghanistan. It would be futile to expect them to do the needful, so far as solving the Pakistani quagmire is concerned. The mess is in our backyard, not theirs'; even though it has been created to a great extent by them.
(The author is a geopolitical analyst and television commentator in New Delhi. The views are strictly personal.)