There is a deep sense of alarm in India at the fait accompli that cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan would be Pakistan’s next prime minister, his party having emerged as the largest party in the just-concluded general elections.
There can be little doubt that Imran, who has been struggling in politics for 22 years could not have made it to the coveted chair had he not positioned himself on the right side of the Army and had not neutralised the Islamic fundamentalists in the country by praising them in public rallies.
Yet, amid all the Opposition allegations of rigging, it is time to accept the reality that Imran would be at the helm and India, the US and the rest of the world would have to deal with them.
In his first TV address to the nation after his election, seeking to allay fears in India over his hawkishness, he vowed to hold talks with India to seek a resolution to the dispute over the Kashmir region. He also called for “mutually beneficial” ties with the US.
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Had Imran’s no-holds-barred attacks on Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto’s party the Pakistan People’s Party not failed to inspire hope in him among a sizeable number of voters, Imran may, perhaps, have continued to not strive to woo the Army. In 2013, when his party was mauled in general elections he apparently decided that if he had to come to power he needed the Army to prop him up overtly or covertly.
Clearly, circumstances worked in his favour too. Nawaz was riding high horses and was on to enriching his family with property deals. His relations with the Army top brass were informal and there was little taste of subservience in them.
However, as Nawaz tended to get unpopular with the Army bigwigs and had a few brushes with General Musharraf one of which led to his banishment to Saudi Arabia, it began to dawn on Imran that he needed to be on the right side of the military establishment if he was to make a mark in politics.
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The Army’s opportunity to get the better of Nawaz came when the Panama papers revealed how Nawaz’s next of kin had taken swanky apartments in London apparently with unaccounted wealth with the blessings of Nawaz.
The Army in Pakistan is no paragon of virtue and corruption comes easily to the generals but here was a chance they could not miss if they wanted to be one up on Nawaz. As prime minister, Nawaz had committed the sacrilege of attending the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi in New Delhi in 2014 which was the trigger for him to be told a few home-truths by the Army top brass.
But Nawaz was unfazed. He welcomed Prime Minister Modi with open arms when he landed impromptu on his return trip to India on December 25, 2015 after an overseas visit. That happened to be Nawaz’s birthday and Modi fraternising with his Pakistani counterpart’s family irritated the Army bigwigs no end.
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The Pathankot terror attack in January 2016 with the connivance of the ISI was indicative of the designs of the Pakistan Army to send out a subtle message both to Nawaz and to India.
When he sits on the saddle now, what would be Imran’s attitude towards India? Imran indeed would be under immense pressure to toe the Army hardline towards India. But he would be aware that India’s clout in international forums is considerable and Pakistan has lost out diplomatically and strategically to India repeatedly.
If Pakistan is to make a comeback diplomatically in the comity of nations and stave off the prospect of being declared a pariah, it may well have to pretend to be offering its hand of friendship to India. This could be a strategic decision with the Army’s tacit support. There would be much for Imran to do in the economic arena to keep his hands full.
Indeed, India must approach Imran’s rise to power with tact and diplomacy. While it would be prudent to be wary of Pakistan and of its army, it may be a good idea to wait and watch.