Facing Imran

Violence, allegations of rigging and the emergence of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) as the largest party in Pakistan’s National Assembly were expected developments from the elections of July 25, as is Mr Khan’s accession to the prime ministerial post. These developments would, however, amount to the few elements of predictability in this second handover of civilian power in the country’s 70-year history. While Mr Khan has been active in Pakistan’s politics over the past 20-odd years, yet he has been a marginal player for at least the first 15 of them, mostly because his anti-corruption and liberal Islam political platform vied with his headline-grabbing private life. That changed in 2011, with, first, the jalsa (gathering) in Lahore, where crowd attendance stunned his opponents. The popularity of a Pathan sport hero free of the taint of dynastic or identity politics admittedly gave him a unique charisma when seen against the leaders of two feudal family-run parties that have shared civilian power. The turning point, however, came in 2013, following a poor showing in the elections. The rhetoric grew more strident, accompanied by a notable dialling down of the liberalism. Intelligence agencies around the world quickly attributed this abrupt change to Mr Khan’s new-found proximity to Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex.

Mr Khan’s prospective premiership will have his task cut out because Pakistan urgently needs social and economic stability. The economy expanded less than a percentage point in FY18 and a yawning current account deficit of 5.7 per cent of GDP is unlikely to be closed by an 18 per cent drop in the value of the Pakistani rupee since exports have barely grown. Meanwhile, foreign debt has increased 76 per cent over the past five years to $92 billion, 30 per cent of its GDP, even as the country struggles to repay loans for the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which was supposed to transform Pakistan’s economy. All indications are that Pakistan will have to approach the International Monetary Fund for its 13th bailout since the 1980s. It is unclear whether Mr Khan understands these realities. Journalists who have questioned him on economic specifics are told he doesn’t do details. His party’s agenda centres on the kind of western style cradle-to-grave welfarism, which the economy simply cannot support.

From a diplomatic standpoint, should India expect a breakthrough with Mr Khan at the helm of affairs? Although he has many close personal friends in India from his Oxford and cricketing days, it would be a stretch to assume that Mr Khan’s prime ministership will result in a fundamental reset of India-Pakistan relations. For one, his fundamentalism appears to have steadily deepened over the past five years: His statements affirming the centrality of the prophet, and support for blasphemy laws imply that he is bound to toe the Army-Inter Services Intelligence line, viscerally anti-Indian and pro-jihadi, even as the country transitions its client-state status from the US to China. Clearly then there is no overwhelming reason to hope for a move towards harmonising relations between the two countries. In short, the election of Mr Khan makes little difference to his country’s India policy, which will continue to be guided by the Army. The most sensible policy for India would be to remain open to engaging with the country’s new premier.