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An unnerving crease

Sankar Sen |

Cricket Captain Imran Khan has now become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. It is a watershed event in his personal career and also in the country’s history. This is the third consecutive democratic government in Pakistan.

The cricketer-turned-politician had been struggling for a while to become the Prime Minister. His ambition has now been fulfilled. His party, Pakistan Tehrik-é-Insaaf (PTI) has won 116 seats in the National Assembly, against 64 by PML(N) and 43 by the PPP. In Punjab province, PTI has secured 121 seats, against the PML(N)’s tally of 129.

Imran’s election has, however, been marred by controversies. Earlier, in 2013, he had stoutly complained against rigged elections. This time, he has been exposed to similar charges. The Opposition parties have criticized the elections as rigged.

European Union election observers were also critical of the “political environment before the polling which negatively influenced the election.” The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan ~ a respected NGO ~ has claimed that there are “ample grounds” to question the legitimacy of the elections.

A very serious allegation has been made by a judge of the Islamabad High Court, Ajib Sidiqui, saying that the spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence, had interfered in judicial matters, and had allegedly asked the High Court Chief Justice not to allow Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, to come out of jail until the elections.

The fact that cannot be disputed is that Imran is a charismatic figure, who enjoys considerable popularity among the younger generation. His slogan for ‘Naya Pakistan’ has stirred the souls of many urban educated Pakistanis, disillusioned with the politicking and governance of the country’s kleptocratic ruling elite. His anti-Americanism has also appealed to large sections of the people who hold America responsible for all the problems of the country.

Imran Khan, in his broadcast to the nation, has signalled his intent to improve relations with India by expanding trade and through talks on the Kashmir issue. However, it seems that the scope for improving Indo- Pak relations is limited and circumscribed. The all-powerful army, which supported and facilitated Imran’s victory in the elections and ascent to power, is not going to allow it.

Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power and imprisoned through a judicial coup. The army and the judiciary acted in concert to throw him out. as the military was opposed to his peace initiatives with India, and his disapproval of the linkage between the”deep State” and the Islamists.

The Army will continue to command the tune and it will expect Imran to play the second fiddle. In his new cabinet he has inducted a number of ministers who held important positions under President Musharaaf. Imran has spoken in favour of expanding trade with India in order to boost Pakistan’s economy. The Army is against such dealings and has in the past thwarted similar efforts by Nawaz Sharif.

Imran speaks of settling the Kashmir issue through talks with India. Again, here also, his efforts are likely to be thwarted by the army. The Generals fear that any sign of inactivity in Kashmir will enable India to regain the lost ground both in terms of operations and psychology.

Therefore, efforts to maintain a certain level of violence and promote a sense of alienation amongst the Kashmiris will continue. However, the army may not stir up serious trouble in and around the Line of Control. Pakistan believes that with its nuclear shield and tough army it can continue to harass soft India and withstand Indian pressures. This obsessive concern of the army is not going to change soon.

There is also another ominous development. Reports indicate that Jaish-é-Mohammed of Maulana Masood Azhar, which was away from the limelight during the elections, is expanding its training facilities near Bahawalpur, with the security forces ignoring its activities.

If it decides to launch a terror-strike against India, a strong counter-response by the latter is inevitable, particularly in an election year. This will make the waters murkier and exacerbate tension.

Imran has pledged to eradicate corruption within 90 days. Any anti-corruption campaign, if seriously launched, will bring him into conflict with the vested interests, which have close links with the army. Indeed, there is a powerful oligarchy described by Stephen Cohen as Establishment that runs Pakistan.

Though the army wields real power, there is a civil-military nexus that runs the show. Imran says that he will fight against the prevalent patronage structure which spawns corruption, but in this mission he will be handicapped as he had given tickets to a number of “electables”, meaning influential candidates who have no definite ideology and are known to switch their allegiance from party to party.

The new Prime Minister’s immediate problem is the dismal economic situation. of the state. Foreign exchange reserves are down from $ 19bn in 2016 to $10 bn now. The import bill, including rising payments for oil, has sharply shot up, raising the current account deficit to 5.3 of GDP this fiscal year.

There is a crushing debt burden of about Rs. 28 trillion and Pakistan finds itself unable to meet its debt obligations The country has turned to IMF for a bailout package, which may not come from China from whom almost $5bn has already been borrowed. But the IMF bailout may be contingent upon western satisfaction about measures undertaken against the extremist groups. Imran Khan will have to navigate through choppy waters.

Fighting terrorism will be one of his foremost challenges. Imran had earlier professed sympathy and support for the terrorists which earned him the sobriquet “Taliban Khan”. He was critical of America’s war in Afghanistan and had condemned the drone attacks launched by the USA which incidentally had the covert support of the Pakistan army.

Will he wholly endorse the army’s course of action against the terrorists (minus those considered as strategic assets by the army against India), or try to modify it? He has realised that aproxy war against India through the Mujahideens only strengthens the army’s grip over Pakistan.

In the election, Allah-u-Akbar- Tehreek (AAT), linked to LeT, did not win a single seat, but it will be naive to describe it as a victory for the sake of peace and democracy. Political mainstreaming of the terrorist groups is a disturbing development about which the USA has expressed concern in unequivocal terms. The very fact that the motley terrorist groups put together could win as many as 4.6 million votes, with as many as 1.8 million votes in the Punjab, should be a matter of serious concern for Imran as well as the army.

After his third marriage, Imran has reportedly become deeply religious and prays five times a day. He speaks of an Islamic welfare state. How far it can be translated to reality is doubtful, but there is the danger that it may provide an impetus to religious groups with an obscurantist religious agenda. Religious dogmas may take precedence over welfare concepts.

Imran, in his first address to the nation, had referred to close ties between China and Pakistan. China has now become Pakistan’s all-weather friend, and is investing heavily. The China- Pakistan Economic Corridor is China’s flagship project in Pakistan. Domestic turbulence and lack of order in Pakistan upsets China, which feels uncomfortable with Pakistan abetting terrorist groups and fomenting a proxy war against India.

Thus far it has stalled efforts to declare Azhar Masood a global terrorist. However, with deepening economic ties with India and the hope of collaboration in future joint projects and involving India in CPEC, China is likely to encourage reconciliation between India and Pakistan. China feels that stabilisation of Pakistan and Afghanistan is necessary in view of the mounting unrest in the Muslim majority Xinjiang province.

The honeymoon between the army and Imran is unlikely to endure. The new Prime Minister is a popular leader and will not remain subservient to the army indefinitely. He will soon seek to assert himself and in the process lock horns with the army.

The army may find it difficult to readily tighten the screws on him because of his standing. Its questionable and meddlesome role in the election has generated public criticism and dented its image. But Imran’s Naya Pakistan will remain a utopia until the civilian authority can assert itself and the army goes back to the barracks.

The writer, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Social Sciences, had served as Director-General, National Human Rights Commission, and of the National Police Academy.