As the ballots in Pakistan’s general elections were being counted, one man seemed sure his time had come after a long wait of 22 years.
As Pakistan’s prime minister-elect Imran Khan sets out to create his Utopian Islamic homeland where the poor and under-privileged are provided with a better life, the real world will come knocking. Can the man who powered his raw team to a World Cup victory, fashion a Pakistan, not just for the millennials but for all of Pakistan that the world has repeatedly dubbed the ‘most dangerous place on earth’. In his almost presidential acceptance speech, he claimed that Pakistan is not home to militant extremism. He also blithely promised to work on the two areas that no Pakistan civilian leader has ever been allowed to tackle freely - Delhi and Kabul. Will the military, which has traditionally controlled the levers of power, trust Imran Khan with the keys to the kingdom? The world can only hold its breath…
As the ballots in Pakistan’s general elections were being counted, one man seemed sure his time had come after a long wait of 22 years. Former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan — who had famously once declared in his youth that his goal was to humble India on the cricket pitch — was on the verge of fulfilling yet another dream of his, that of leading his country politically.
Four years after that famous day in the Spring of 1992, when he held aloft the cricket World Cup in Australia, Mr Khan plunged into the hustle and bustle of politics, founding his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf or PTI as it is known in 1996. Initially, not many had believed he could win. After all cricket and political pitches are very different. The Pakistani polity was essentially viewed as the fiefdom of two families — the Sharifs of Punjab and the Bhuttos of Sindh. And then there was the all-powerful Army that was widely seen as the real ruler of the Islamic nation. In 1999, its chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf went on to seize power, deposing the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif who earned the eternal distrust of the Army. It was something that would work to the benefit of Mr Khan in the times to come.
In the years that followed, Mr Khan made several visits to India in his avatar as a politician and retired cricketer. In the flush of electoral victory on Thursday, he declared to his nation, “I was saddened in the last few days, how the media in India portrayed me as a Bollywood film villain. It seemed like everything bad would happen to Indian if Imran Khan came into power. I am the Pakistani who has the most familiarity with people in India because of cricket, I have been all over that country.”
Things had begun to change after 2013, the year Nawaz Sharif staged a remarkable political comeback, winning the polls and becoming PM for the third time. But by the next year, Mr Sharif’s relations with the Army had once again soured. It was then that Mr Khan sensed his chance. He staged a march to Islamabad and all but brought Mr Sharif to his knees with what most believe was the tacit support of the Army. The tenacious Nawaz Sharif hung on, but not for too long.
In the run-up to the 2018 polls, Mr Khan was widely acknowledged as the front-runner. Mr Nawaz Sharif was no longer the PM and was facing corruption cases. The Sharif family and its PML-N was facing anti-incumbency and the Bhuttos were a shadow of their former selves. But perhaps most important of all, Mr Khan was seen as the choice of the Pakistan Army, the ISI and the religious fundamentalist lobby that threw its weight behind him.
In his hour of victory on Thursday, the former fast bowler threw in an unexpected full toss. He declared, “I think it will be very good for all of us if we have good relations with India. If we both want to reduce poverty, which should be the top priority for any government, we need to have trade ties, and the more we will trade, both countries will benefit. The unfortunate truth is that Kashmir is a core issue, and the situation in Kashmir, and what the people of Kashmir have seen in the last 30 years, their human rights have been violated. Solutions cannot be found by the (deployment of the Indian) Army (in Kashmir). There are human rights violations whenever any Army goes into urban areas. The Kashmiris have really suffered. Pakistan and India’s leadership should sit at a table and try to fix this problem. It’s not going anywhere.”
He further asserted, “We are at square one right now with India. If India’s leadership is ready, we are ready to improve ties with India. If you take one step forward, we will take two steps forward. But move ahead. Right now it is a one-sided relationship to blame Pakistan. I say this with conviction, this will be the most important thing for the subcontinent, for both countries to have friendship. And to resolve our main issue through dialogue.”
New Delhi is yet to officially respond to Mr Khan’s comments, probably because he hasn’t been sworn in as prime minister. But what has impressed many is the fact that the speech was sober and introspective in its tenor and there was no shrill jingoism. While Mr Khan did raise the Kashmir issue, what raised eyebrows was his statement that whenever an Army is deployed in an urban area, there are inevitably some human rights violations. His comment that Pakistan was ready to walk two steps forward for peace if India took just a step had an idealist ring to it and people will wait to see if he can actually walk the talk.
But there are some who are not convinced. Even before Mr Khan’s conciliatory speech, former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal — commenting on the implications for India — told this newspaper, “There will be lack of business as usual. It makes no difference. If at all, it will be for worse. Nawaz Sharif did not get along with the Army and tried to engage with us. But Imran Khan won’t even have any space to deal with India. His discourse is much more Islamist. He is backed by religious fundamentalists. Imran Khan might try to offer talks and put the ball in our court. He is not in any position to give assurances on India’s demand that Pakistan stop sponsoring terror. Imran might try to win brownie points by offering talks.”
Shortly after the election results were out, strategic affairs expert C. Uday Bhaskar said, “Even if Imran Khan becomes Prime Minister, the real power will lie with the Army. The Army takes the call on all issues related to India. If Imran Khan tries to talk to India, he will be reminded of what happened to Nawaz Sharif.”
But at the same time, there is also a feeling that one should perhaps give Mr Khan some time and the benefit of the doubt in the current scenario. Participating in a discussion on the Pakistan election results at a think-tank in New Delhi, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan T.C.A. Raghavan said, “Imran Khan must receive credit for having fought and won the elections... A party headed by a charismatic person with whom the military has a comfort is not such a bad thing.”
However, with India facing its own general elections within nine months, it remains highly unlikely that the Narendra Modi government will take the political risk of getting into any serious negotiations on the Kashmir issue, particularly since there is little chance of the Pakistani establishment taking any concrete action against terrorists operating from its soil. It will also be a test of whether Mr Khan can back up the olive branch he has held out to India with some serious action against terror, which is the core issue for New Delhi.
Commenting on the election results, former Pakistani diplomats have also been pointing out that Mr Khan has the reputation of being very headstrong despite his apparent proximity to the Army. “He will not take dictations from anyone,” former Pakistani High Commissioner to India Ashraf Jehangir Qazi told a TV channel.
Already there is speculation that Mr Khan’s possible dependence on smaller parties for a majority in the National Assembly could prove to be of advantage to the Pakistan Army as a lever to wield its influence from behind-the-scenes and retain its decisive role in deciding policy vis-a-vis India. This could, in turn, prove to be a potential flashpoint between Mr Khan and the Generals in future who will nevertheless be pleased for now with the election results for now.