Imran Khan could make the difference in Pakistan's politics, perhaps

M. Serajul Islam   | Published: August 01, 2018 21:58:17 | Updated: August 02, 2018 21:50:32

In a hung parliament, Imran Khan (IK), the superstar from the world of cricket, led his Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf (PTI) party to win 115 seats against 64 seats by the party in power the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and 43 by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Although, the 115 seat TIP won were short of the 137 required to form a government on its own, IK succeeded in arranging a coalition to perform on Pakistan's political stage what he had done on the world cricket stage for Pakistan in 1992 when he had brought home the World Cricket Cup. IK is set to take oath as the Prime Minister of Pakistan on August 11.

IK was a major factor in Pakistan's victory in the World Cup as much as with his extraordinary all-around skills in batting and bowling as with his brilliant leadership as the team's captain. IK was in a better position to lead the PTI vis-à-vis the major parties. Nevertheless, the results were unexpected in the sense that the PTI won more seats than the PML-N and the PPP taken together. That was quite a feat and it has brought into Pakistan's troubled, fragmented and volatile politics, the much heralded and sought-after third force under the leadership of a cricketing superstar who has spent the last two decades and more learning to be a politician.

And IK will not just usher the much anticipated proverbial third force into Pakistan's politics, he will do so with the promise of change that has already ushered into Pakistan's politics, the proverbial breath of fresh air.  The TIP defeated the two parties that had shared power over the last few decades led by the most corrupt politicians imaginable. Nawaz Sharif, who led the PML-N, had been the Prime Minister three time,  is currently serving a 10 years' jail sentence for corruption. He is, in fact, a megastar of corruption not just on Pakistan's stage but, as the Panama Papers have revealed, on the world stage as well.

And, although Bilawal Bhutto, the son of Benazir Bhutto and Zardari Zardari, leads the PPP formally, it is his father who really controls the PPP with the son as a figurehead because he too has been barred from politics on proven charges of mega corruption, comparable with those of Nawaz Sharif. IK thus had made corruption the major underpinning of his campaign that was not difficult to sell against the two thoroughly corrupt leaders leading TIP's main rivals. And IK had the perfect credentials to fight corruption because he has not been, even in the faintest, tainted by corruption as he has not held a political office in his career.

IK would also be bringing a very welcome and refreshing element to Pakistan's politics much to the relief of the people. The PML-N and the PPP had represented families and their interests in Pakistan's politics. IK would be freeing Pakistan from that kind of politics and shackles where families came ahead of the interests of the people. And both the PML-N and the PPP have represented feudal interests in Pakistan's politics that have been a major reason why politics never found its democratic bearings in Pakistan since its birth in 1947. IK has no feudal background or questionable baggage to represent in Pakistan's politics.

IK's critics have stated that he has been nurtured for power by the military. That charge has not been proven. Pakistan's military has been the greatest obstacle to democratisation of Pakistan's politics. Therefore, IK's greatest challenge in internal politics would be adjusting and sharing power with the military that of course would not allow him a free hand in governing the country. Nevertheless, it is high time Pakistan's military loosened its stranglehold on the country's politics. And Imran Khan, with the credibility he would be bringing to Pakistan's politics, could be the first politician in the country's history that the army generals would be forced to take seriously to allow a real share of political power to the politicians. And he has charisma a plenty - a lot of it coming from cricket that Pakistanis follow with religious zeal.

Pakistan in the past had another Prime Minister who had charisma and a lot of it. He was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Unfortunately for him and Pakistan, Bhutto wasted his charisma by his haste to rein-in the military. Among his many other mistakes, the one was firing the army generals. He promoted one to the post of the Army Chief to be hanged by him in the end. He was fundamentally dishonest as he underlined with his role in the Bangladesh Genocide where a great deal of the evil plans of the Pakistan military had come from him.  And though he wore the ordinary men's dress, he was feudal and exercised power with feudal temperament.

IK would do himself a great deal of credit if he would study closely Bhutto's dealings with the military and his role in politics so as not to repeat his mistakes. The military in Pakistan, obstacle as it is towards the fulfilment of the country's overall goals as a nation, is too deep-rooted in its politics, economy and society. Its undue role in Pakistan's politics could be brought to an acceptable level (though really the military should not have any role in politics) only through negotiations and through a process of adjustments and a game plan. IK has the right credentials and the credibility for reining in the military's overbearing dominance in Pakistan's politics.

Imran Khan would be assuming power at a time when the international and regional factors would be to his advantage in establishing himself in Pakistan's politics. Reaction in India to his victory has been interesting. The Indian media that historically acts as the correct barometer on the government's stand on foreign affairs issues went overboard criticising IK. In the words of IK himself, the Indian media turned him into a villain in a movie. That vilification in the Indian media says a lot what IK would be bringing to Pakistan's politics. Although India was not a factor in Pakistan's elections this time, nevertheless India was, is and will always be a factor in Pakistan's politics. And the criticism in the Indian media is because India feels genuinely concerned with IK assuming power in Islamabad.

There are many reasons for Indian apprehension. IK could prove more than a match for Narendra Modi given his background compared to the Indian Prime Minister. And Narendra Modi's Hindutva has polarised India's significant number of Muslims that IK could garner for his political objectives in his own country and South Asia. Further, the United States is on the cusp of giving up its role in South Asia basically because of a President who has no knowledge of the region or any interest in it. That would mean the further rise of China in the region where without USA's active backing on strategic issues, India would fall behind as it already has. IK would just need to keep steady Pakistan's great and deep relations with China to be able to get a hold on South Asia vis-à-vis India that was the dream of all his predecessors but none was able to achieve.

And in cricket-crazy South Asia, IK could use some of his cricketing glory to unite the smaller states of the region against India's overbearing and unfriendly attitude towards its smaller neighbours. However, to do that he must revisit 1971. As an 18-year-old, IK had visited Bangladesh in 1971 while the Pakistani military's operations were on and had returned back to Pakistan and had said what the Pakistan military was doing was wrong. As the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he would now need to render, finally, an apology to Bangladesh for the hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children the Pakistan military had killed in 1971.

Pakistan's economy is in ruins. Its foreign exchange reserve is at US$ 9.0 billion (against US$ 33.23 billion in Bangladesh) just enough to meet costs of two months' imports. Its current account deficit is at US$ 18 billion and it owes to international creditors a walloping 92 billion in debt. Therefore, the economy will keep IK busy upon becoming the Prime Minister. IK would not be assuming power with a massive mandate but he would be happy that the voters have discarded the religion-based political parties that have been routed.  That would allow him time and opportunity to focus on the economy because religious extremism was pushing Pakistan fast the towards becoming a failed state.

Serajul Islam is a former Ambassador.



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