In what can only be called a historical irony, the results of the national and provincial elections in Pakistan come on the day when India celebrates its Kargil Vijay Divas, commemorating the liberation of the Kargil heights from Pakistan-sponsored intruders just 19 years ago. The party of charismatic former cricketer superstar Imran Khan, the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is leading with 120-plus seats, the halfway mark being 137 seats. Incarcerated and barred from politics, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), is second with 60-odd seats, followed by the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party in third place. A motley group of Independents and smaller regional groups constitute the “others”.
Significantly, all the major parties are complaining about vote rigging. After the 2013 election, won by the PML(N), only the PTI was making similar allegations. Imran Khan had in fact launched an “azadi” rally in 2014, in combination with expatriate cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, which had laid siege to the capital Islamabad. Considering that Punjab, being demographically half of Pakistan, will still be controlled by the Sharifs, it would be very easy to mount an agitation. Imran can ill afford that at the very start of his term in power. He could try to wean away the PPP by having them join his PTI-led coalition. This, however, would go against what Imran would consider his mandate for change: from the status quo of power alternating between the Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardari clan.
The first question is whether the Pakistan Army has been able to achieve its objective of having a Prime Minister who shares its worldview. Imran has crafted an image as a pious man, above corruption, and sympathetic to right-wing Islamists of diverse shades. But Imran is also a charismatic personality, perhaps the only one after Benazir Bhutto, who has a pan-Pakistan connect, including with young people. The limp performance of Bilawal, Benazir’s son, shows his inability to carry the masses outside the family’s limited fiefdom of Sindh, specifically Larkana. The Army may perhaps not have wanted Imran to get a majority on his own, knowing his autocratic and sanctimonious nature. To that extent, the Army has been successful. It is unclear yet which coalition partner would meet the Army’s approval. Imran may on the other hand assert his independence by crafting support that does not need the Army’s assistance or endorsement.
While South Block will closely watch the formation of the government in Pakistan with guarded scepticism, knowing well the hand that the Pakistan Army is playing, New Delhi let its GOC-in-C, Northern Command, use the occasion of the Kargil Vijay Divas to warn that the Indian Army was prepared for any misadventure by the neighbouring country. In any case, by the time that a government led by Imran settles down and its dramatis personae are known, particularly in the foreign office and the national security spheres, India would be getting close to the Lok Sabha elections. It is therefore extremely unlikely that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would like to undertake any risk-prone outreach to Pakistan. Gains would be impossible in the short run, and which the Pakistan Army might anyway wish to deny the Modi government. Thus, India is likely to be in a holding pattern diplomatically, waiting to see how Imran plays his India card. It is possible that Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who has occasionally made positive noises about relations with India, may want to test the ground with New Delhi.
China has been quick to issue a certificate that the election was a great success. It remains to be seen what the European and other poll observers, who were getting minimum cooperation from the Pakistani authorities, say about the charges of vote-rigging. It is noteworthy that the delay in declaring results has been accepted by Pakistan’s Election Commission. Also, the charges started flying well after the counting of votes had begun, and when Imran’s party was hovering between 90 and 100 seats. Some counting centres are alleged to have turned the observers out as the counting continued. This story is unlikely to end anytime soon.
In his past interviews to Indian television channels, Imran has sounded pragmatic about India-Pakistan relations. While asserting that Kashmir was a “core issue”, he had agreed that confidence-building measures like trade needed to be boosted. He is on record explaining that this can only work when the spoilers are ignored. It remains to be seen if he realises that the real spoilers are the Pakistan Army, which happens to be his guardian angel at the moment. The playing field was unlevelled by the Army-judiciary combine by a witch-hunt of the Sharif family, made so much easier after the Panama Papers revelations. There was also a mainstreaming of jihadi elements, listed as terrorists by the UN, when they were allowed to contest the election under new political entities. This served two purposes — to draw away from PML(N) votes of ultra-conservatives in Punjab and thus improve chances of the PTI; and by granting quasi-legitimacy to these terrorists to be able to counter international pressure to act against them. However, as expected, even Hafiz Saeed’s immediate relatives drew a blank.
Imran has a plate full of urgent economic and financial issues staring at him. He has a narrow window to set an agenda and demonstrate that he is as good at governing the nation as he was at running the extremely successful Pakistani cricket team. Relations with the United States, which he has often brutally criticised including by condemning American drone attacks, will be tested quickly as the US measures him. It remains to be seen whether he will bring more religious piety into the lives of Pakistanis and resume the evangelical Islamic agenda of the late Gen. Zia-ul Haq. However, what Pakistan needs more than anything is what had helped Imran become who he is — a great education and a more liberal environment.