The cricketer-turned politician’s charisma has finally worked in Pakistan. What remains to be seen is how he will address the outstanding issues with India. Will he, as a favourite of the Army, make it understand the value of giving peace a chance? Or will he just toe the line?
Imran Khan sprung a surprise in the 14th General Elections in Pakistan held on July 25 this year. After 22 years in wilderness, he finally managed to make his charisma work in electoral politics. A man of many parts — ace cricketer, philanthropist, rabble-rouser, eternal optimist with a colourful life — Imran is due to take over the reins of the new Government in Islamabad soon. The election results proved many Pakistan watchers in India wrong. As much as they were guided by opinion polls to argue that Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was closing the gap with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), they hardly believed that the apparent shift in Imran’s favour would turn into a distinct wave.
The results must have equally surprised the string-pullers in Pindi, euphemistically called the deep state. Right since the days of the Azadi/Tsunami march, which led to the Islamabad dharna during August-December 2014, Imran had himself spilled the beans publicly regarding his links with the military by referring to the “umpire” who, he expected, would raise the finger in his favour and perhaps, push the elected Government out of office.
Ever since, he was rated by media at home and abroad as the Army’s prop in Pakistan politics.
The Tsunami finally struck!
The Tsunami Imran expected in the 2014 long march has finally inundated Pakistan, with his party securing 116 wins out of the 272 directly contested seats. This is extraordinary given the fact that his party had secured only 28 seats in 2013 with 76.8 lakh votes — a distant second to PML-N, which had secured 126 seats with 1.48 crore votes. The tables have turned this time. Imran’s party has improved its performance dramatically over the last elections in 2013. It has secured 1.68 crore popular votes — almost 119 per cent rise in gross terms. In percentage terms, his party’s vote share has risen from 16.92 per cent to 31.8 per cent. In comparison, the PML-N’s aggregate votes fell by about 13.3 per cent and its vote share fell from 32.77 to 24.39 per cent. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which was in power during 2008-2013, continued with its declining appeal, even if it managed to secure 43 seats with less number of aggregate votes (6,901,675 now vs 6,911,218 in 2013) and falling percentage of vote share (15.23 to 13 per cent). In the elections, this time, the voter turnout was 51.7 per cent compared to 55.2 per cent in 2013.
The PTI’s success can be measured from the following. It is all set to form an absolute majority Government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) for the second time in succession; it is likely to do everything possible to form a Government in Punjab even if it has won a few seats less than the PML-N (122 to 127); it is trying to be a part of the ruling alliance in Balochistan, and it has now a respectable presence in the Sindh legislature, it should be proud of.
Dhandli (Rigging) or not?
Most leaders in Pakistan are bad losers. They hardly accept defeat with grace and ascribe their defeat to machinations by invisible hands. Five mainstream political parties including the PML-N, PPP, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), Awami National Party (ANP) and others have rejected the results, citing cases of rigging and fraud, even if they expressed their desire to attend Parliament. Some of the external observers, including the former Election Commissioner of India, have given a clean chit as far the conduct of elections was concerned. Some others criticised the participation of religious radical groups and non-provision of security to some of the parties that failed to run an equal campaign despite the fact that threat from non-state actors loomed in the horizon. The suicide blasts during the campaign, that snuffed out the lives of two candidates and many of their followers, indicated this. On the face of it, however, the Army’s role in the elections looks exaggerated. At best, it seems that there was an anti-incumbency wave taking shape and the Army helped it to its destination.
However, analysts from Pakistan would indicate that following the Panama leaks, the enthusiasm and doggedness with which Nawaz Sharif’s case of disproportionate assets was handled by the military-judiciary-bureaucracy could not hide the fact that there was a constellation of forces in the power corridors to fix the Sharifs. The establishment’s distaste for the Sharifs was reciprocated by the unguarded outbursts of the PML-N leaders, who disparagingly called the Army “khalai makhlooq” (invisible creatures/aliens) and “state above the state”. That did not help matters for the PML-N. The final conviction and imprisonment of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz during the last lap of the election campaign might have cost the party dearly, given the fact that they were the star campaigners and pulled massive crowds in their rallies.
Use of religious radicals
The other tactic seemingly adopted by the ‘unseen hands’ was to encourage the PML-N dissidents and radical religious elements to contest the elections to eat into the conservative constituency represented by the Sharifs. The election symbol, jeep, was very much in the news for having been chosen mostly by the dissidents. The Barelvi Maulana, Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) fielded candidates all over Pakistan as did Lashkar founder Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League (MML) under the banner of Allahu Akbar Tehreek (AAT). The results show the jeep failed to run; the MML could only secure about 1.72 lakh votes, while the TLP was a surprise package and seemed to gather the support of disparate Barelvi groups around it. It polled 4.2 per cent of the total votes, an impressive total of 22.3 lakh votes all over Pakistan. Together with the MMA’s show of about 4.8 per cent (25.4 lakh votes), the religious forces accounted for about 9 per cent or more of the votes this time round.
In the elections, the soft-radicalisation of the Pakistani society was quite clear. The radical religious elements were seen to be injecting a strong anti-blasphemy ethic into the Pakistani body politic. The TLP campaigned openly against the Sharifs for having sent Mumtaz Qadri — the cold-blooded assassin of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer — to the gallows, while in reality, it was the security forces who played a critical role in his trial, conviction, and execution. Imran’s party was also seen issuing appeals to the people not to vote for the PML-N — “the killers of ashiq-e-Rasool (beloved of the Prophet) Mumtaz Qadri”. Even a seasoned PML-N leader like Ahsan Iqbal had to swear in the name of Quran that he was also ashiq-e-Rasool and would never defend a blasphemer!
The competitive radicalism at work in Pakistan has forced various groups to show their love for Prophet as militantly as possible as a mark of their commitment to Islam. The trend, quite visible in the campaign, is likely to continue.
Undoing of the Sharifs
The script from the fauj (Army), if at all it was there, was perhaps being choreographed patiently for a long time. Nawaz’s inept handling of the demand for Panama investigations must have given a fillip to his detractors, and finally, it proved to be his undoing. Once it went out of Parliament and entered the judiciary, the khakis must have found it easier to fix him. His histrionics and impassioned rants against the Army, soon after his conviction and disqualification for not being sadiq and ameen (honest and righteous), might have amused the audience, but failed to alter their views about him as a dishonest and power-mongering politician. Ironically, the demand for revision of the very provisions in the Constitution — which went against him during the earlier PPP Government — was rejected by him. As a political conservative, he had thought that the concerned clauses in the Article 62 were ornamental and his opposition to their revision would help sustain his pro-Islam image.
That the case against him was more political than moral and ethical was forgotten in the cacophony that was brilliantly orchestrated and was in full display in the social as well as the mainstream media. The concerted campaign launched against the Sharifs in the electronic media as an utterly corrupt, self-serving and venal lot must also have done serious damage to their image and appeal.
Passing on the mantle to Shahbaz, who had delivered as the Chief Minister of Punjab (while Imran’s PTI Government in KPK had failed to keep its promises), did not help. Majority of the people had made up their mind; his party had to suffer. It is now virtually reduced to a party based in Punjab as much as the PPP has over the last two elections become a Sindh-based party. Nevertheless, it would be naïve to dismiss the party offhand as it has demonstrated its resilience and risen like a phoenix from its ashes in the past. The wafer-thin majority that Imran is likely to have in Parliament and his party’s minority status in the Upper House will offer the PML-N enough chance to spoil Imran’s party as he proceeds as Prime Minister Khan.
The trend of Pakistani politics suggests that Imran will be able to attract Independents and other smaller parties, including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — known for its inclination to align with the winner — to cobble together an alliance and stake his claim to form the next Government. Imran deserves it, for he has won on five different seats across Pakistan. His party has fared well in almost all the provinces and its dent in urban Sindh, as also its penetration in the PML-N stronghold in north Punjab, was too conspicuous to be missed. It has managed to push the MQM to the second position in Karachi and outsmarted the MMA.
Riding the wave of electoral victory, Imran has already delivered a ‘victory speech’ outlining his Government’s priorities amid allegations by most of the major political parties
that the polls were rigged. He has assured that he would not resort to vendetta politics and would personally throw his weight behind investigations into the allegations. He has promised to improve relations with most of the countries regarded as important for Pakistan — the US, Afghanistan, China, and India.
The India Factor
The India factor was hard to miss in the elections, even if the manifestos of most of the major political parties mentioned India cursorily. Nawaz’s rumoured love for India was used by major electronic media channels to unleash a vulgar campaign against him on the eve of the elections. In his public appearances, Imran too alluded to Nawaz’s love for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The slogans from his followers were obvious: “Modi ka yaar gaddar, gaddar” (the friend of Modi is a traitor for Pakistan).
On the day preceding the elections, when the party campaigns officially stopped, some of the top media channels were busy cursing Nawaz for allegedly taking US$400 million (a total lie!) and allowing Modi’s emissary Naveen Jindal to come to Pakistan without visa! They also criticised him for his silence on perceived Indian interference in Balochistan and his lackadaisical approach to the Kashmir issue.
In this context, Imran’s opening message to India has been on expected lines. He has as many fans and admirers in India as critics and detractors. He regretted that the Indian media portrayed him almost as a Bollywood villain and expressed his desire to build bridges with India on the trade front, but only after the core issue of Kashmir is addressed by both countries sitting across the table.
Like many hardliners on India in Pakistan, he had a solution to offer to the Kashmir issue. The very same solution that has been parroted by successive Army chiefs since Musharraf: The implementation of the UN resolution. The resolutions in contention — the 47th resolution adopted on April 21, 1948, by the UN Security Council and the one passed by the UN Commission on India and Pakistan (UNCIP) on August 13, 1948, which clearly mentioned in its Part II A (1&2), withdrawal of all Pakistani forces, before the next part on ascertaining the wishes of the people could be taken up for consideration. Much water has flown down the Indus since then and Pakistan has forgotten that the resolution could not be implemented primarily because it did not honour the primary conditions mentioned in the resolutions.
Subsequent frameworks that have been evolved to undertake dialogue to resolve the issue (like the Musharraf formula during 2004-2007 and the backchannels) have been put in cold storage by the establishment, making it impossible for the civilian Governments to initiate any meaningful dialogue with India since 2008. Every time there has been an effort to restart the process, the spoilers from Pakistan get activated to strike (remember Mumbai, Pathankot, and Uri). How Imran addresses this issue remains to be seen. Will he, as a favourite of the Army now, make it understand the value of reining in the spoilers and giving peace a chance? Or will he flow with the current and toe the line?
From the Indian side, there is absolutely no reason to hope that any sensible policy-maker in New Delhi would like to take the process backward to a point of stalemate over Kashmir and start again. In case a mercurial leader of his kind runs afoul of the Army’s position, reinvents the wheel and restarts the dialogue, it would be fun to watch the political circus that would be run by the Army to either tame or oust him.
Meanwhile, those scripting Nawaz’s decimation must be happy that his nemesis has failed to win a clear majority. This would make him vulnerable to their manipulations, in case he chooses to trespass into areas regarded as their exclusive domain, namely those pertaining to foreign and security affairs. Imran would remember that Nawaz, a child of the military to begin with, fell out of favour once he decided to craft his own foreign policy, more so vis-à-vis India.
Imran has promised to take two steps for every step that India takes towards resolving all outstanding issues. PM Modi has already congratulated him on his success and made a sober beginning. Even then, it is not hard to predict that in the short term, Imran will tamely follow the deep state in his policies towards India. Or does the Kaptan have any ‘reverse swing’ up his sleeve?
The writer is Senior Fellow and Coordinator, South Asia Centre, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, India