Does Imran Khan, who graduated from running a cricket team to a province, have the ability to run a country as complicated and challenging as nuclear-armed Pakistan?
Are we watching the final run of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, and the last gasp of a Pakistan People’s Party led by political rookie Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who draws the crowds, but cannot yet hope to match the fanatical pan-Pakistan following his mother Benazir Bhutto once commanded?
As India’s nuclear neighbour votes today in Election 2018, this Islamic nation that stands at the crossroads of history is about to witness a generational change as power shifts inexorably to a new breed of politicians led by the charismatic Mr Clean of Pakistan’s politics — Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi. IK, as he is popularly known by his legion of fans, may have opened the doors of his Tehreek-e-Insaf to several dodgy politicians from other parties but the charismatic superstar himself, unlike his wealthy rivals, can account for every penny of the Rs 38 million of his property and assets.
Unless the masses of Punjab, who vote in 148 members of the National Assembly (MNAs) in a House of 272, set out to defy the military and blunt the firepower of the 370,000 troops strategically stationed at every polling booth across the country, and upend the military’s carefully laid plans to retake control of Pakistan’s polity, the man who was once the toast of the cocktail circuit of Mumbai will be the face of Pakistan, and that of the military-ISI complex in Islamabad.
The 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto was meant to end the hold that the hugely-popular PPP leader had across the country, as strong in her home base of Sindh as elsewhere in Pakistan. Benazir’s killing by so-called terrorist groups under President Pervez Musharraf’s regime never quietened the doubts within party ranks over the involvement of the “deep state” in eliminating the only figure who could challenge the military.
But the unintended consequence of that assassination, however, was the sympathy vote that propelled Ms Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, to the presidency, with the party rank and faithful swallowing their discomfort at the trashing of the pro-poor, socialist trope by the Zardari-Talpur family which focused solely on staying in power. It was this brand of politics that has resulted in the PPP’s negation in its traditional strongholds in southern Punjab, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi, despite the demise of its main rival, the Mohajir’s Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).
This time Mr Zardari, who has cleverly projected his 29-year-old son while keeping himself and his unpopular sister Faryal Talpur out of the limelight, is well aware that any deviation from the military’s line will attract instant retribution. Mr Zardari crossed the line not once but twice on India policy, the Army’s preserve. First, he offered to send the Inter-Services Intelligence chief to India after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. But the second move to end the military’s sway by co-opting the Washington big boys after the United States homed in on 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden’s hideout, barely a few yards away from a military academy, blew the lid on the Pakistan military’s dubious role in fomenting terror. Much more damaging, it put a permanent black mark on Mr Zardari himself. His recent critique of Nawaz Sharif, in fact, is being seen as no more than an attempt to ingratiate himself with the military, but even that may not go far enough. Bilawal Bhutto, it must be said, however, has the anti-establishment instincts of his forbears and could be in for the long haul. If, that is, his father — and the military — let him.
It’s the cussedness of Nawaz Sharif, though, that the military has not been able to get past. A Punjabi scion with Kashmiri antecedents from Lahore’s Gowlamandi, handpicked from relative obscurity by the military to counter the electorally-powerful PPP, Mr Sharif’s natural instincts to take control and reduce the imprint of the Army on policy, predictably brought grief, outmanouevred by not one but two canny Army chiefs in his previous terms. This time, as he sought to take control after winning the people’s mandate in 2013, despite a strong challenge on the streets from both IK and a little-known cleric from Canada, he ran an independent line on India and Afghanistan in a bid to bring calm to Pakistan’s borders. He allied closely too with Washington to contain Pakistan’s terror imprint. This alone would have reduced the relevance of the military. But it was in simultaneously taking control of the huge investments involved in the China-Pakistan investment initiative CPEC that he may have earned the wrath of the establishment. If he had managed to turn Pakistan’s failing economy around, Nawaz would have been simply unassailable. The Panama Papers and the Sharifs’ assets abroad it detailed were a gift horse the Pakistan Army couldn’t have ignored. Elements in the pro-establishment judiciary, which pronounced him and his daughter Maryam unfit to lead their own party and gave them long jail terms, have in lieu of an actual military coup all but removed him from office. A judicial coup d’etat!
The man to watch is Nawaz’s once-trusted aide, canny Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, whose brother, incidentally, blew the lid on Gen. Musharraf’s gameplan on Kargil when he was Nawaz’s military adviser. In fact Nisar, a Punjabi, may well be the dark horse, the military’s chosen counter to the PML(N) in case IK — whom many say is as vacuous and unpredictable as US President Donald Trump and an unknown quantity when under pressure — doesn’t pan out.
As for Nawaz, he is hoping that, unlike before, when he retreated from the fray, sought Saudi intervention for self-exile in the now notorious Avenfield Apartments in London, this time his choice of jail over freedom will bring the PML(N) faithful out to vote in droves.
The Army may have written Nawaz’s epitaph and indeed of all freely elected governments. The question is whether Pakistan recognises this soft coup for what it is, and allows itself to be reduced to a sham democracy.