Can Imran Khan build a new Pakistan without curbing the groups that are tearing it apart?
I recently asked a retired Pakistani diplomat, on the margins of a Track 2 meeting, if the army commissioned opinion polls to gauge public sentiment before national elections. His response was quick and clear. “The army does not poll,” he said, “it gives commands.”
This time around the army had made its intentions clear: the Sharifs, the country’s leading political family with great, if not decisive, influence in Pakistan’s all-important province Punjab, were to be ousted from national political power. Imran Khan, the head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), a cricketing great who had brought home the World Cup in 1992, become a national icon, and over the decades gained in political popularity, was to take their place and become prime minister.
Thus, in this election, the first point of interest was if, in particular, the Punjab voter would heed the army’s ‘command’ – as many PML(N) politicians had done. Would they abandon the Sharifs despite the head of the family and thrice prime minister Nawaz Sharif ’s and his daughter Maryam’s political shahadat? Trends and informal results – the Election Commission of Pakistan’s servers crashed delaying official results – indicate that Punjab has not completely turned its back on the Sharifs. But a sufficient number has gone with PTI to make it the leading party.
The army’s objective has been achieved; Imran Khan will become prime minister and the Sharifs’ challenge will have to await another election, if at all. Interestingly, if present trends hold, the PML(N) will be the single largest party in the Punjab provincial assembly, but is unlikely to form the government.
Neither Imran Khan nor the army will allow the country’s powerhouse, Punjab, to remain with the Sharifs. Shehbaz, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother who has controlled the state, has always maintained a reasonable equation with the army but he has lost his seat. His son Hamza has won. The Sharifs will hang together and the Shehbaz side of the family will not cut a separate deal with Imran and the army.
Significantly, for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) provincial assembly the PTI has increased its tally and the Zardari-Bhuttos have maintained their control over Sindh. It is clear that with the army’s push Imran will now be prime minister and control Punjab and KPK. But for all this he is far from being an overarching leader like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or even Nawaz Sharif. For, he has won with the army’s support and the judiciary throwing Nawaz out of his way.
Predictably, both PML(N) and PPP have rejected the election results as Imran Khan had done in 2013. These charges though will not change the course of events. These parties also justifiably complained that this has been the ‘dirtiest’ election in the country’s history. The campaign has been vicious with abuse and vitriol as its currency. It has also been violent, especially in Balochistan where terrorist bombings prior to and on election day killed scores of innocents.
But the bombings did not prevent voters from coming out, a sign of popular investment in democratic functioning. Imran Khan is tasting national political success after two decades of participation in the country’s public life. Will he honour the tacit compact with the army or seek to be his own man, including in the formulation of Pakistan’s security and foreign policies?
His manifesto and campaign comments have not departed from the ideology of Pakistan. The army will support him to build a ‘naya’ Pakistan as long as he does not seek to have the last word on security and foreign policy. He will swiftly be put in his place if he tries to do so.
As religious extremism and violent fundamentalism make increasing inroads in Pakistan modifying its traditional mazhabs, is Imran intellectually and temperamentally equipped to enthuse the people to take to more humane and productive paths? This has to be an essential element in meeting the daunting economic, social and political challenges that Pakistan faces.
He wants to make a new Pakistan but he has given no indication that he wants to curb the groups that are tearing it apart. The army uses these groups – in the vanguard of closing Pakistani minds and wedded to violence – to promote Pakistan’s external interests. It too has shown no inclination to change course though it has had to pay a heavy price to combat internal terrorism. In such a situation Imran Khan will engage in enormous political and governance drama, but the basic moorings of Pakistan are unlikely to shift.
What should India expect? Imran Khan castigated Nawaz Sharif for being soft on India and ‘friendly’ with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has himself articulated positions on India that are in keeping with Pakistan’s traditional approaches, embedded in the army safeguarded ideology of Pakistan.
There is little doubt that Khan will soon call for the commencement of full bilateral dialogue but without fresh form or substance. Also, it will be interesting to watch the optics of his meetings with the Afghan leadership, for he is the first Pathan head of government after Yahya Khan.
A last word. Imran Khan’s personal life and proclivities will attract attention, for his ex-wife Reham Khan has drawn attention to them in somewhat sensational fashion. However, in patriarchal Pakistan and in this age of macho leaders, they will provide fodder for gossip but not undercut his political position.
The writer is former Secretary, MEA