Even the best-laid plans of mice and men can go awry. If the Pakistan army wanted Imran Khan to score a runaway victory in the elections, it will be disappointed. If an inability to reach the halfway mark forces the former cricketer and international playboy to constitute a coalition, the already confused scene in Pakistan will become more muddled.
The reason is that Imran cannot have any truck with either his bete noire, Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League or with Bilawal Bhutto’s People’s Party. He will have to depend, therefore, on the Independents to form a government.
But for a person who has had no experience of governance, a khichdi or hodge-podge ministry will have a hard time finding answers to the country’s myriad problems -- an economy in a shambles, shortage of electricity and even water and, the most contentious of all, terrorism, which has made it a virtual pariah in the eyes of the world.
Will Taliban Khan, as Imran’s critics have called him because of his supposed soft corner for jihadis, be equal to the task? If he wanted among his putative supporters the party of the mastermind of the Mumbai massacre of November 26, 1908, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, he must have been disappointed to learn that the latter’s Allah-o-Akbar party has fared poorly in the polls.
This failure is in keeping with Pakistan’s electoral tradition of keeping out the so-called Islam-pasand parties -- or the outfits known for their avowed love for religion -- at a safe distance from the legislatures. The Jamaat-e-Islami, for instance, the fountainhead of religious extremism, secured a bare two per cent of the votes in 2013. The Pakistan army’s hope, therefore, of “mainstreaming” the militants has been dashed.
In contrast, the electoral snub for Saeed can be seen as a sign that Pakistan’s heart remains in the right place, even if that is not always evident to Indians because of its conversion into a haven for terrorists under the tutelage of the pathologically anti-Indian army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Although Imran criticised Nawaz Sharif’s linking of the 26/11 outrage in Mumbai to Pakistan, that did not boost Saeed’s prospects.
For the Pakistan army, Imran’s stumbling just before breasting the winning tape cannot but be disquieting. Although Rawalpindi, where the army headquarters are located, will be in overall control over the country’s foreign policy (as also the domestic scene) as always, it still likes a civilian to be the formal head of the government to tell the world about the country’s democratic credentials.
Imran may be able to play that role even at the head of a coalition. But he is likely to be somewhat hamstrung, especially in the face of criticism by Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League, which is now headed by the former (and currently jailed) prime minister’s brother, Shahbaz, and also by the Pakistan People’s Party.
The army’s relief, therefore, of having succeeded with a little help from the judiciary to oust the supposedly pro-Indian Nawaz Sharif will only be partial. It will also be concerned about how reliable a puppet Imran will turn out to be. Will the swashbuckling hero of cricket and now of politics, who has been accused of being a drug addict by one of his former wives, scrupulously follow the script written for him by the army?
It is known that once a person ascends to the throne, he tends to develop a mind of his own. In view of Imran’s extrovert and flamboyant personality, it is difficult to believe that he will be the army’s poodle all the time, especially when his interactions with the world leaders will tell him that Pakistan’s reputation is not as pristine as he would like it to be and that India’s case on terrorism is widely accepted.
Besides, the army will remember that Nawaz Sharif, too, was once its favourite till his business instincts told him that endless enmity with India will not benefit Pakistan even if such a state of affairs is indispensable for the army if it wants to retain its stranglehold on the country’s politics and society.
India, therefore, will have to tread carefully with the new dispensation across its western border. Any summary rejection of Imran as a friend of the army and of terrorists will be inadvisable even if his initial observations on Kashmir, for instance, tend to portray him as a hawk. That may be more for domestic consumption in Pakistan than a long-term view.
The caution on India’s part is all the more necessary because the political scene in the country is on the verge of change with several elections in the states and a general election due to take place within the next 12 months. Therefore, the Pakistan “desk” in the external affairs ministry will have to keep its options on hold.