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What should India expect from Imran Khan?

Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
Hit for a six.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Despite the delays in official results, it seems likely that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)—or Pakistan Movement for Justice—will have a plurality of seats both in the National Assembly, and in the crucial Punjab Provincial Assembly. So what should India expect from a PTI-led civilian government in Pakistan?

Since the elections, “The Captain,” as cricketer-turned-politician Khan enjoys being referred to, has won praise for his statesman like address where he calls for deepening economic ties with India, emphasising the mutual fondness and respect developed touring as a sportsman.

This may sound like the sort of thing that got Sharif in trouble with the army, but for now it means very little. Actual control of foreign, defence, and internal security policy is now more firmly in military hands than ever before, and they won’t worry until Khan attempts to wrest it from them.

However, the intensifying civil-military tensions that resulted in Sharif’s imprisonment are far from over, and could embroil the PTI as well. It is as yet unclear which side Khan will end up on, but given how central Indo-Pak relations are to those tensions, it’s going to be a bumpy road no matter what.

Khan’s course of action is likely to depend almost entirely on whether Sharif, his daughter Maryam, and their supporters in the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) go quietly into the night, or turn this into a knock-down drag out struggle. If that comes to pass, we’re likely to see the same kind of heated rhetoric about India from a PTI government that we saw during the campaign, creating a much sharper bilateral and regional atmosphere.

On the other hand, if prime minister Khan feels that his public mandate is secure, tensions will almost certainly develop between him and the chief of army staff (“the Umpire” in Khan’s words) over how to approach India.

Punjab turns on itself

Sharif and Maryam, facing the choice of years in prison or walking away with bail into political mediocrity, could rebel in the same manner of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir after General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s 1977 coup.

Sharif and Maryam could rebel in the same manner of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir after Gen Zia’s 1977 coup.

The highly flawed but nevertheless popular father sacrifices himself, and by refusing to beg or plead, becoming a shaheed (martyr), whose blessings are one day reaped by his far more liberal daughter. Meanwhile the rest of the family at least gains the sympathy the awam (the masses) against the oppressive military-backed state, braving arrests, torture and harassment.

Such a grassroots response is particularly likely if Khan’s government proves to be inept or unlucky in managing Pakistan’s looming economic crisis. The battle would be a bitter and ugly one, given how evenly matched the two parties’ support bases are in Punjab, and the fact that the differences are often generational, and within the same family networks.

Such a movement would be as much against the army as the PTI, in which case Khan will have no choice but to remain in wedlock with the uniforms. The PTI, like the army, would insist that Sharif, and other opposition forces such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement—or Pashtun Protection Movement—are nothing more than paid Indian agents, and an interference in Pakistani politics.

These claims have already been made by the PTI in the campaign, and will grow more vociferous if the conflict endures. The allegation wasn’t invented by the PTI; the Pakistani military seems quite convinced that Sharif’s economic interests in India have put him in the Indian establishment’s pocket. In short, the longer this drags on, the more India will serve as a convenient scapegoat for internal high-level struggles, with unpredictable consequences.

The captain and umpire turn on each other

If the PML-N fails to gain steam, it’s likely that Khan’s legendary self-confidence will surge to new heights. With real control of two provinces (including Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and the centre, the captain would feel empowered to fully exercise his popular mandate.

This would put him squarely in conflict with the silent umpire.

The captain would feel empowered; this would put him squarely in conflict with the silent umpire.

Areas of major difference include relations the US (especially drone operations), and even more sensitively, Pakistan Army’s counter-terrorism ops, which “Taliban Khan” had roundly opposed in the past. His highly populist nationalism is unlikely to sit well with the pragmatic—and unpopular—approach maintained by the army since General Pervez Musharraf’s post-9/11 pivot.

The army as an institution has evaded the political costs of its inconsistent policies by shifting sole responsibility to the men at the top—Musharraf, Zardari, Sharif…and soon Khan. It seems unlikely that a firmly entrenched Khan would be willing to let the military indefinitely play a game of “pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey” with him.

Pakistani prime ministers always come to the realisation that reducing tension with India is the best way to reduce the army’s political capital.

Unlocking the economic gains from increasing trade with India is also particularly attractive when tall promises have been made to an impatient electorate. Whether its vegetables, transit trade, or creating profitable new cartels, there are public and private financial incentives to normalising the relationship faster than the army is comfortable with.

And certainly, Khan, with one eye on posterity, and the other on his own reflection is just the sort of man who could imagine himself making history between the two countries through sheer charm and force of will.

Finding a way forward

If Pakistan and India are ever to achieve normal relations, there must be a reconciliation that extends beyond leaders to institutions and peoples. Given the Pakistan Army’s level of paranoia about Indian intentions and its vice-like hold on policy-making, any advance of civilian supremacy is a good thing.

But as India has seen many times before, it’s unwise to store too much hope in civilian leaders, however well intentioned. Much as it has done in Afghanistan, India’s best long-term hopes are to build a relationship with the Pakistani people, especially in Punjab, which remains the country’s centre of gravity.

Nearly 50 million Pakistanis coming out to vote in the face of oppressive heat, voter-roll issues, and terrorist attacks says something about how much democracy means to them. The intensifying struggles over where decision-making power should lie offers an opportunity for India to be supportive, particularly if the civilian politicians stop fighting one another and instead focus on reclaiming their full constitutional rights and responsibilities.

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