An outcome foretold

An outcome foretold

A supporter of Pakistan's cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, gestures as he wears a t-shirt featuring an image of Khan's near his residence in Islamabad on July 26, 2018, a day af

In the end, there was no proverbial twist in the tale. Imran Khan’s victory in Pakistan’s election had been predicted by most and it turned out to be true. The Pakistani military, which had shaped the electoral battlefield in Khan’s favour was, of course, the real winner as it managed to make it clear to the civilian population that anyone who dared cross swords with it would end up languishing in jail like former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Imran Khan has won the electoral battle but he still will have to seek out some allies to form a coalition government. This is a remarkable turnaround from the previous parliamentary elections in May 2013 when his party, the PTI, had come third.

Reacting to the election results, Sharif, serving 10 years in jail on charges of money laundering, alleged that the polls had been “stolen” and warned that the “tainted and dubious” results would have a “bad impact” on the country’s politics. But that’s the lament of a leader whose gamble of generating sympathy vote in his favour failed to work.

The Pakistani voter, with considerable help from the military, has brought Imran Khan to the helm of affairs in the country. While his charisma and communication skills did help, it was his outreach to the military that ultimately paved the way for his prime ministership. Khan had denounced the Afghan war as the “wrong war” and his party PTI protested against the supply provision to the US. His advocacy in favour of the Taliban was so strong that he was chosen by them as their representative in peace talks with the Pakistan government. He even advocated a peace deal with the with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and denounced Sharif in the strongest terms. 

In return for this, the Pakistani military prepared the ground for Khan to be prime minister. It went after Nawaz Sharif and virtually decimated the PML-N. Then, it helped him by mainstreaming various extremist groups. It propped up the Tehreek-e-Labaik, which advocates strict anti-blasphemy laws. Other globally ostracised groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were propped up under different guises. Even the founder of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Fazlur Rehman Khalil, came out in support of Khan and the PTI. Not surprising, therefore, that the rise of Imran Khan was in more ways than one foreordained. 

After his victory, Khan has been quick to talk of making Pakistan’s institutions stronger under which everyone will be held accountable. He has promised to build a “Naya Pakistan” which would be an Islamic welfare state. On the question of India, Khan suggested that the blame game between the two countries over Kashmir and Balochistan needed to stop, claiming: “If India takes one step towards us, we will take two steps toward them…but at least (we) need a start. Right now, it is one-sided, where India is constantly just blaming us.”

Multiple challenges

But challenges abound on the issue of governance, the central plank of Khan’s campaign, and they will come to the forefront soon for the new government. The economy is tanking, with a sinking rupee and growing deficit. Pakistan will have to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout package. 

Pakistan’s growing global isolation is a challenge and India has made it a point to diplomatically wage a campaign against Islamabad at various fora. Relations with the US are on a downward spiral though Washington has said that it will “look for opportunities” to work with the new leaders of Pakistan after they form the government and try to advance security, stability and prosperity in South Asia. Pakistan has been grey-listed by the global terror finance watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Internal security is volatile with an escalating Shia-Sunni rivalry and growing imprint of Islamic State. 

Pakistan’s relations with China remain key to its economic future. In its official statement, China has said that it hoped Pakistan would maintain political and social stability and concentrate on national development. The investments China has made as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor will be central in this evolving dynamic. There is trouble on the ground and the projects are languishing. Beijing would be hoping that a stable government can give these projects the much-needed impetus. China has recently lent Pakistan $1 billion to boost the latter’s plummeting foreign currency reserves.

The biggest challenge for Imran Khan, however, will be to manage the civil-military equations in a way that allows him to complete his full term in office. If the military has built him, it can also do away with him. After all, Nawaz Sharif was ousted partly for opening the treason case against Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

For India, it will be more of the same. Before next year’s elections, there will be hardly any appetite in New Delhi for any bold overtures toward Pakistan. The question from India’s perspective would be whether it can manage the turmoil on the border. Pakistan’s nuisance value remains high and it can very easily pull India back from an emerging global power to one that is focused on South Asia.

The broader transformation in Pakistan, with civilian supremacy and army’s marginalisation, something which many had hoped for after the elections in 2013, is nowhere in sight. The Pakistani military is now more firmly ensconced in the saddle than ever before. In fact, learning from the past, it has begun to act smarter by working through the backdoor. 

The challenge for India and the world is how to manage the negative externalities emerging out of Pakistan’s internal turmoil. If there is a message in Imran Khan’s victory, it is that in Pakistan, the more things change, the more they remain the same. 

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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