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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 33 New Delhi August 4, 2018

‘Triumph’ of ‘Captain’ Imran Khan in Pakistan’s Violent Election: What Can India look Forward to?

Tuesday 7 August 2018

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

In the just concluded general elections in Pakistan, arguably the most violent in recent memory, former World Cup winning cricket captain of the country Imran Khan has emerged victorious; psephologists had predicted a close race between Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led in the elections by his brother, the outgoing Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif.

The declaration of the final results were delayed, blamed by officials of the Election Commission of Pakistan PCP) on technical glitches though the opponents of Imran Khan, including Shabaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto (son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto), who headed the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), were quick to level allegations of ‘rigging’ against Khan and his alleged backers, the all-powerful Pakistan Army. As per the official results declared by the PCP, the strength of the parties that contested the elections to the National Assembly are as follows: PTI—118, PML-N—62, PPP—43 and others—47. The majority mark in the Pakistan National Assembly which has a strength of 272 (elections to two seats have been countermanded due to the deaths of incumbent candidates) is 136. The National Assembly has a total strength of 342 of which 272 are directly elected; 70 seats are reserved for women and religious minorities who are nominated in proportion to the seats won by the parties to the National Assembly.

If these results are confirmed, Pakistan will have a hung assembly though Imran Khan, whose PTI is projected to emerge as the single largest party, has already claimed victory as he has claimed the support of enough number of smaller parties and independents for securing the necessary number of 136. So effectively he is the incoming Prime Minister of Pakistan for the next five years.

The outcome of these elections has received mixed reactions—in Pakistan, in India and even the wider world. Pakistan—which has been the hotbed of militant violence for years taking an estimated lives of 70,000 people—witnessed probably the most violent elections in recent memory when scores of lives were lost during the election campaign as also on the day the polls were held. The run-up to the polling day was marred by the jailing of Nawaz Sharif on July 13 when he returned from exile in London with his daughter Maryam to begin their prison terms (both Sharif and Maryam were convicted for 10 years and seven years respectively on corruption charges after the revelations in the Panama Papers). The day witnessed rallies by thousands to welcome Nawaz Sharif back though the media which faced unprecedented gagging—ostensibly at the behest of the Army and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)—did not carry any of the protests in Lahore or Rawalpindi. The social media, in contrast, was flooded with pictures, videos and discussion.

What lends credence to the ‘rigging’ charges was that contrary to the establishment’s expectations, the popularity of Sharif and his party, according to credible sources, held ground even after he was ousted as the Prime Minister on corruption charges in July 2017. His accusations of military interference had caught the public imagination. The fact that the PML-N won 62 seats is ascribed by even Pakistani commen-tators to the brave decision of Sharif to return which ensured the prevention of his party’s total decimation in the elections.

To counter this, a fierce crackdown on the media was launched when market leader Geo Television was taken off the air in April this year, and the distribution of Pakistan’s oldest newspaper, Dawn, was disrupted since May. The Chief Executive of Dawn, Hameed Haroon, levelled serious charges of intimidation by the “Deep State”, that is, the military and the ISI, in an interview with the BBC. Facing this barrage of intimidation the mainstream media surrendered and the battle was carried out in the social media though in the event it has turned out to be futile.

After muzzling the media the establishment (read the ‘Deep State’) launched a crackdown on the electoral process; scores of candidates were disqualified, jailed or coerced away from standing for the PML-N, and journalists and social media users were harassed in such an atmosphere of terror that the PML-N stood no chance of coming anywhere near even emerging as the single largest party, let alone securing absolute majority. The results of the elections prove that this apprehension has come true.

But the detractors of Nawaz Sharif, of whom there are plenty in Pakistan, argue that his and his party’s position had become untenable following his conviction on corruption charges which happened through due judicial process though Sharif’s supporters protest that the judiciary was coerced by the establishment into convicting him as he was proving to be recalcitrant by refusing to toe their line, especially in regard to his policy towards India. In his election campaigns Imran Khan openly labelled Sharif ‘a friend of India’, powerfully echoed by the establishment.

The unfortunate reality is that years of incul-cation of an enemy image by the establishments—both in Pakistan and India—have had a deleterious effect on the public’s mind. So scoring brownie points against election opponents by branding them as agents of the ‘enemy’ is a popular game in Pakistan—as also in India. This time it seems to have worked against Sharif notwithstanding the allegations of ‘rigging’ in favour of Imran Khan. After all, the charges of ‘rigging’ are yet to be established in a court of law though the possibility of a legal challenge by Imran’s vanquished opponents is not being ruled out.

So as long as the jury is out on this score Imran and the PTI have to be given the benefit of doubt and he has to be accorded the recognition as the duly elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. However, the question that seems to be uppermost in the mind of everyone is— having won the election, allegedly with the backing of the military and ISI, will Khan be able to avoid the fate that befell almost every civilian elected Prime Minister from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif (all of them were unable to complete their tenure—mostly due to the military’s interference)? While on the face of it Pakistan can take pride for the second transfer of power from a civilian administration to another civilian one. all Pakistan-watchers are almost unanimous that the military and ISI still retain the ultimate control over the levers of power, the apparent show of democracy striking roots notwithstanding (a notable feature of these elections is that the voters turned out in sufficient numbers—reported to be in the range of 50-55 per cent—in spite of the violence that marred the whole process). So the challenge for Imran Khan in forging a working equation with the military and ISI (who have, incidentally, denied all charges of meddling in the elections) remains formidable.

At least so far as security and foreign policy—the India policy in particular—is concerned, the military is unlikely to give Khan any leeway and if Imran tries to be his own master in this regard he will be put in his place or even eased out—as happened to Nawaz Sharif who refused to toe the military’s line. The other big challenge for him will be to set the economy right—which is reeling under a huge debt burden as well as a big trade deficit—besides implementing his promises of creating new employment, attract investment and eradicate poverty.

Another positive feature of the elections was that parties that fought the polls using religion, Kashmir or anti-India and anti-US rhetoric, lost out. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a five-party Opposition alliance of radical religious parties that also included the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam’s Fazlur Rehman and Jamaat-e-Islami’s Sirajul Haq, lost heavily to young candidates from the PTI and could secure only 13 seats. The new Milli Muslim League—the political face of the 2008 Mumbai attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed’s Jamat Ud Dawa and Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan headed by cleric Khadim Hussein Rizvi—had to bite the dust. These organisations fielded over 150 candidates which had raised a lot of heartburn internationally; but they could not even cross three digits in the polling. Evidently Pakistan’s voters sent an unequivocal message that rejected violence and sectarianism in the name of religion.

Internationally while the Trump Administration said that it looks forward to working with the new Government of Pakistan Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and White House official, took a dim view of Khan’s election labelling him as the most anti-US politician in South Asia. Khan, however, has said after his election victory that he would work with America on South Asian security, especially in regard to Afghanistan.

So what can India look forward to from the outcome of these elections in Pakistan? Needless to add that the Government of India (GOI) and Pakistan-watchers in the foreign policy establish-ment and the media were keenly awaiting what emerged from these polls. The victory of Imran Khan, however, has been greeted with scepticism by the GoI and the strategic community. It is felt in New Delhi that nothing much will change as a result of the transition in power unless there is a radical change in the thinking of the Pakistan Army. The election of Khan, if anything, will further strengthen the grip of the Army on Pakistan’s security and foreign policy, they argue. Mindful of the Army’s attitude, Khan is unlikely to offer any concessions to India in spite of the fact that he offered an olive branch to New Delhi in his first press conference—post his electoral victory—by stating that if India takes one step Pakistan will take two steps. He also offered talks on Kashmir to find a solution.

In fact Pakistani diplomats are more upbeat when they argue that India should not mind dealing with Khan despite his dalliance with extremist and militant forces, as his neighbour-hood policy will have the full backing of the Army. They further argue that unlike Nawaz Sharif, Khan does not suffer from “a credibility deficit”; “it’s not just about corruption cases. Sharif was seen as representing corporate interests and he didn’t enjoy the confidence of other institutions including the Army. Khan has a clean image and anything he does with India will receive the full backing of the Army,” an anonymous Pakistan-based diplomat told The Times of India. (The Times of India, July 27, 2018)

This is however dubious logic, to say the least. The very fact that the leader of a country which claims itself to be a democracy is hamstrung in such a fashion to be able to take independent decisions speaks volumes about the room for manoeuvre for Imran Khan vis-a-vis India. In other words, the Pakistan Army will continue to call the shots in regard to decision-making on India. This does not augur well for prospects for breaking the ice between the two countries whose relations have reached rock bottom. This is, however, not meant to suggest that the future for India-Pakistan relations are bleak. Human societies of which nations are made generally survive on optimism. Both India and Pakistan must accept that they cannot change geography; they cannot also change each other’s Prime Ministers and have to work with whoever the peoples of the two countries choose as their leaders. Imran Khan—whatever his faults—has started a new chapter in the history of Pakistan. India faces general elections in May 2019. Much headway in bilateral ties is unlikely until a new government takes office in New Delhi—whatever its colour. Until then will it be too much to hope that the two sides will make an effort to break the ice taking advantage of the new dispensation in Islamabad?

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is the former Head and Professor of International Relations and former Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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