Originally Published 2018-08-22 05:01:06 Published on Aug 22, 2018
Imran Khan in the chakravyuha

Imran Khan took his oath of office as the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan after 22 years of struggle as a politician. Khan won 176 seats in the Assembly vote, defeating Pakistan Muslin League (PML-N) candidate, Shahbaz Sharif (brother of jailed former PM Nawaz Sharif) who bagged 96 seats, after a raucous debate. While there was some talk of Opposition parties closing ranks, that did not happen. The Zardari-Bilawal Bhutto led Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) broke ranks and abstained.

For discerning observers of the swearing-in ceremony, there were several significant takeaways. The first striking one was Imran’s current wife, a soothsayer, arriving resplendent in a cream dress and a full-face burkha, with a slit for her eyes only. The Wahaabi tradition of Pakistan’s benefactor and so-called godfather, Saudi Arabia, has now reached the PM’s household.

The second was the rather grim visage of the Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, who thought it fit not to smile, perhaps in deference to the ceremony. But why he chose to scowl is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Khan did not meet with his approval as PM. Hussain’s otherwise genial and smiling photos on the internet are a complete contrast.

The third significant takeaway was Imran’s mispronouncing certain words in the oath of the text. The text of the oath was heavily infiltrated by Arabic words and loaded with Islamic phrases. The Oxford-educated Imran fumbled in pronouncing several Arabised words. This shows how far Pakistan has travelled in creating an identity which can be positioned as far away as possible from South Asia, particularly India.

Pakistan has, as a matter of State policy, systematically eliminated Hindi words from its version of Urdu, its national language, as Islamisation of politics, society, education and other aspects of life has been enforced, ever since Gen Zia ul Huq began the Islamisation programme. The irony is worth noting. Urdu was born in India and was never spoken in Pakistan. Urdu retains its Hindi grammar, which Pakistan cannot expunge. A principal reason why Urdu has slipped into relative obscurity in India is because it was seen as a language of Muslims, which Islamic Pakistan adopted as its national language.

The fourth important takeaway was former cricketer and current minister in the Congress government in Punjab, Navjot Singh Sidhu’s presence at the ceremony. His sitting next to the so-called president of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and his “jhappi” with a fellow Punjabi speaker, none other than Pak Army chief General Qamar Bajwa. Sidhu was conspicuously visible on TV screens, wearing a pink turban and chatting with other guests. His presence and hobnobbing with Bajwa was bound to raise hackles in India.

The BJP has attacked him for his behaviour and demanded that the Congress get him to resign. An unfazed Sidhu went on to praise Imran and hoped that the new government will work for peace with India. The seat can't not be a random decision. A ceremonial occasion does not lend itself to such whimsical decisions on seating arrangements. The decision to seat Sidhu next to the so-called president of PoK was deliberate and designed to provoke India. If goodwill has to be generated then this was not the right move. Sidhu, meanwhile, has been mildly censured by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.

PM Khan’s 21-member Cabinet comprises many who have held positions in the regime of former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf. The new Foreign Minister (FM) will be Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former FM in the PPP government when the Mumbai terrorist attack occurred in 2008.

Qureshi was visiting India when the Pakistani terrorists were attacking in Bombay. He had to return home to escape the inevitable embarrassment of having been undercut by his country’s Army, the chief coordinator of the Bombay terrorist outrage. Qureshi later quit the PPP and joined Imran Khan’s party.

Shirin Mazari, an adviser to Khan has been appointed as Minister for Human Rights. She once advocated nuclear strikes against India’s population centres in one of her papers on Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine. She will have her task cut out dealing with Pakistan’s dismal human rights record, particularly in Balochistan, where the Army has been violating human rights with impunity and unfailing regularity, attempting for decades to cow down and eliminate freedom fighters. The Army will surely ring-fence any effort to make it accountable for human rights violations and it is unlikely that Mazari, a right-wing hard-liner will cross swords with the Army.

Notwithstanding widespread allegations of a “fixed” election, it is still noteworthy that Pakistan has had its third election and democratic transfer of power. A significant factor in this election has been the participation of candidates backed by terrorist organisations who have been nurtured by the Army/ISI. This has often been called the “mainstreaming” of terrorists in an attempt to giving them legitimacy and deflecting international pressure. This effort has not succeeded since all such candidates lost.

The jihadi organisations have to realise that they have no future in Pakistan’s electoral politics. For the Army/ISI the collateral advantage is that they will remain subservient to their diktats. Nevertheless, the people of Pakistan have again shown that they may be religious and even ultra-religious but they will not hand over the reins of governance to jihadis and religious radicals. This is a silver lining in Pakistan’s polity.

There is another important underlying change in the dynamics of Pakistan’s polity. The real power centre, the Army, today is reasonably confident of ensuring that its writ runs on what it regards as crucial aspects of State policy, without interference from civilian elected leaders. The earlier option of ejecting an elected government via military coups is now redundant.

Hence civilian leaders will be restricted to their own space in State policy as decided by the Army. Khan’s electoral slogan of building a “Naya” Pakistan and seeking peace with India will be tested on the hard realities of who controls Pakistan’s India policy. Whether Imran can build a new or “Naya” Pakistan, as per his electoral slogan, is an open question.

PM Modi has congratulated PM Khan on his electoral victory. India is likely to keep the door open for engagement. However, if PM Khan wants to normalise relations with India he will have to avoid approaching ties through the prism of Kashmir.

Imran’s career as PM will follow the trajectory decided by the Army/ISI. He may get some leeway but on “core” external issues, the leash will be firmly held by his Army/ISI benefactors. Imran has complex challenges on the domestic front with multiple deep-rooted internal problems, including the parlous state of the Pakistan economy. There is no merit in pre-judging what he can achieve as PM.

The most important challenge for Imran will be the sensitive civilian-military relations and the “Lakshman Rekha” drawn by the Army/ISI. If Imran chooses to cross it, then he will end up as another Nawaz Sharif.

This commentary originally appeared in Catch News

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Chakravarty was a Visiting Fellow with ORF's Regional Studies Initiative where he oversees the West Asia Initiative Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined ...

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