Pakistan, on Saturday, acquired a new prime minister in cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. Without doubt, the rakish playboy cricketer of yesteryears owes his rise to the Pakistani army. In a country which officially practices a rather fundamental version of Islam, Khan’s freewheeling attitude to life, which barely squared with various religious edicts, underline the hypocrisy ingrained in his elevation. The permanent government in Rawalpindi is capable of doing what it wants. In the current scenario, when it had decided to penalise the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for not being sufficiently deferential, it found it convenient to hand-pick a new puppet to install in the prime ministerial gaddi. In the recent elections despite generous help from the army, Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf failed to get a simple majority.
Even before the last vote was counted, it was more or less certain that Khan, whose nickname is Taliban Khan since he is in bed with the killer outfit, would be made to wear the notional crown while the Rawalpindi GHQ ruled. A number of small groups with a few seats each helped Khan win 176 votes, four more than the half-way mark. Shahbaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and younger brother of the jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, got 96 votes while 54 members of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party abstained. Given the fragile numbers, Khan would lead an instable government, one which the army can always pull down with a hint and a wink to the smaller groups of four or five members each. In short, he is a creature of the army and will last in office so long as he does its bidding. Therefore, it follows that any hope of the Khan Government turning off the tap of terrorism is totally futile. One of the reasons Nawaz Sharif incurred the wrath of the army was said to be his tenuous effort to explore the chances of a rapprochement with India. No Pakistani prime minister can be expected to resile from the stated position on Kashmir and hope to survive. Sharif was not a fool to contemplate that sacrilege. No, all that he wanted was to ‘normalise’ ties with India in spheres such as trade, people-to-people contacts, etc. But even that put the backs of the well-fed generals in the Rawalpindi GHQ. As a gesture of goodwill, Prime Minister Modi did phone Khan immediately after the results of the National Assembly to congratulate him on his victory and wished to see peace in the region while Khan reciprocated with ‘you take one step, I will take two’ trite line. Yet, Khan in his speeches after the elections has been harping on Kashmir as a core issue. Unless they learn to put Kashmir on the backburner and try and normalise ties in other spheres, such as cultural exchanges, trade, resumption of the Lahore-Amritsar bus service, even locating newspersons in each other’s capital, there can be no movement in lessening tension between the two countries.
The starting point of any ‘normalisation’ will have to be the withdrawal of the ISI backing to the jihadis in Kashmir. Khan made much to-do about the human rights of Kashmiris without realising that those are being trampled upon by the gun-wielding thugs exported from across the line of control who exploit the religious affinity to extract obedience from the local people. Khan has to put his own house in order before he can expect India to respond in any meaningful way. Meanwhile, he faces an immediate challenge in warding off a payments crisis. The Pak treasury is virtually empty and requires an infusion of $15 billion to honour urgent commitments. With the US hardening attitude, and the IMF-World Bank imposing tough conditions, the only course available might be for Pakistan to get further indebted to China which insists on extracting a high price for any such distress bail-out. With an empty treasury, Khan will find it hard to deliver on his welfare agenda. His friends in the Taliban will expect him to give them more space to perpetrate their evil. With the Opposition in no mood to cooperate, the novice administrator will have a tough time despite the army’s backing. Meanwhile, the presence of Navjot Singh Sidhu, a Congress minister in Punjab, at the swearing-in ceremony of Khan seemed rather odd, though he seemed to be in his colours, beaming away from ear to ear. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, too, were invited, but politely declined. But then the joker in the pack has to stand out, isn’t it?