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Pakistan has muddled through crises. As a new government turns to IMF for help, it faces another moment of reckoning

Forget, for a moment, the many problems between India and Pakistan that have persisted into the 75th year of Partition and Independence. For anyone in South Asia and beyond interested in Pakistan as a major state — it has the world’s fifth largest population, a valued geopolitical location, a leading role in the Islamic world, and a powerful army equipped with nuclear weapons — the real question is whether Pakistan can redeem itself. As the seven-week-old Shehbaz Sharif government turns to the International Monetary Fund to arrest the macroeconomic crisis, seeks uninterrupted support from the armed forces until the next elections in the summer of 2023, and tries to reboot its regional and global policies, few can bet on Pakistan’s prospects.

Admittedly, Pakistan has muddled through many crises in its history. But can it manage those that confront it today? Consider, for example, PM Sharif’s bet that by turning to the IMF, he can stabilise the economy that many are convinced is headed Sri Lanka’s way. Pakistan has been to the IMF before, 22 times to be precise. But none of the attempts to stabilise the economy with the IMF’s help have been accompanied by a serious effort to reform and remove the deeper constraints on it. The story this time is unlikely to be any different. Sharif’s decision to raise fuel prices and risk popular anger has been viewed as a “bold” move. His predecessor Imran Khan had walked out of the agreement with the IMF a few months ago to prevent a political backlash at home. Sharif’s calculus appears to be based less on a credible strategy to revitalise the economy than a bid to appease the army leadership and win its support for staying on in power. But the army is not known to be kind to civilian leaders. There is speculation that it will pull the plug on the Sharif government once it implements the hard and unpopular IMF demands.

On the face of it, Sharif leads a broad-based coalition that has brought together both the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League alongwith a host of other parties. But the army, which has never let a civilian government function effectively, is unlikely to give a free hand to Sharif. It has just dumped Imran Khan after installing him in power in 2018. What is new, though, are the divisions within the army on a range of issues — on managing the domestic political order, rebooting the economy, and rearranging regional and international relations. Imran Khan, who had defied the GHQ on all three fronts, appears to enjoy considerable support among the middle classes as well as within the ranks of the army. To make matters worse, Pakistan’s regional and international standing has been in steady decline. This does not augur well for either Pakistan or its neighbours. But Delhi must persist with the engagement of all key formations in the Pakistan polity to prevent bilateral relations from turning worse in the coming days and to forestall unwanted crises.

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