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New ‘Kaptan’ of Pakistan is here for change


Former playboy cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan is all set to become Pakistan’s new prime minister. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, though the largest single party in the National Assembly still has to stitch up the numbers to have a simple majority. Those numbers won’t be hard to get as much ahead of the elections as the scales were tilted in his favour. Though the opposition questions the fairness of the elections, that won’t make much of a difference. Pakistan’s powerful military were looking for ways to dislodge former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who had dared to challenge their constant meddling. Khan is all set to take oath on August 11.

What now for Pakistan? Will Imran Khan make a difference? Leading a national cricket team to a World Cup victory may be very different from governing a complex nation. One thing going for the celebrity cricketer is his clean image. Pakistanis, like Indians, are fed up of the corrosive corruption that has eroded the credibility of both the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). People, especially the youth of the cricket-crazy nation have enthusiastically welcomed the PTI victory. The middle-class are as optimistic that “Kaptan” would make a difference. Khan is not a traditional politician from a political family. In his first speech to the nation, Khan spoke of strengthening institutions and cleaning the system. Pakistan has already given both PPP and PML a chance. Imran Khan, who brought so much joy to the nation through his cricketing career, now has the chance to deliver in politics.

Khan is almost a born again Muslim, often seen with his prayer beads. His third wife and spiritual guru known as Pinki Pirni, had her face completely covered in their February wedding photograph. But the Oxford educated Khan is a sophisticated man for the world. He is familiar with the West and his charm is likely to bowl over many Western leaders, who will find it easy to connect to him. His first marriage to the British heiress Jemima Goldsmith, made him a part of the British elite. Princess Diana was a close friend of the couple. So much will be made of his suave persona by Western leaders. But it is also true, that Khan supports blasphemy laws, is close to many hardline religious groups and in 2006 voted against the women’s protection bill, which was to amend the obnoxious Hudood Ordinances which jail a woman for the crime of pre-marital sex or adultery.

Imran Khan has called for better relations with India and said focus on trade was a good way to start, while maintaining that Kashmir remained a core issue. He added that if India took one step he would reciprocate with two. He knows India well and has many friends and admirers in the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also called on him only to wish him well. There was talk of an invite for all SAARC leaders a la Modi style for his inauguration, but that at the moment remains mere speculation.

Considering that foreign policy, especially relations with the US, India and Afghanistan is with the army, there is not much that Imran Khan can do. Nawaz Sharif’s fall from grace was because of his desire for improved ties with India and his attempt to bypass the army during Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas Day in 2015. Terror strikes in Uri and the Pathankot airport attack put an end to peace efforts. Imran Khan is unlikely to provoke the army soon after taking office. More so as he had the army backing his effort.

Though Indians see Imran Khan mainly through the prism of bilateral ties, the fact is the new Prime Minister will concentrate mainly on domestic issues plaguing Pakistan in his first few months. For one the economy is in bad shape, and Pakistan urgently needs an IMF bailout. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already said that his country would oppose such a move. President Donald Trump’s administration which has launched a trade war with China, is in no mood to help President Xi Jinping’s ambitious belt and road initiative, of which Pakistan is a centrepiece. The US$60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which involves building massive infrastructure project including roads, railways, airports to connect Pakistan’s mineral-rich Balochistan province with China. However, the infusion of funds has done little for Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves which has dipped to US$10 billion. Pompeo said Washington saw no rationale for a pay off of Chinese loans to Pakistan.

It is unlikely that the US or the IMF will allow Pakistan to go down the path of bankruptcy, but will use the current financial crisis to coerce the new Prime Minister to act against the Afghan Taliban, mainly the Haqqani network, that has often targeted American soldiers. Pompeo’s statement against an IMF bailout has to be seen in this context. How Imran Khan handles all this will be interesting, though the final call will be taken by the GHQ in Rawalpindi. Here again Pakistan has an advantage as a peace deal in Afghanistan is near impossible without Islamabad’s backing. That could be the saving grace for Pakistan.

Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise  in foreign policy and international affairs.