Is Imran Khan his own man?

Whether it’s London or Washington, New Delhi or Kabul there’s a common question governments are asking as they respond to the Pakistani election results: Will Imran Khan, who is poised to be the next prime minister, prove to be the pretty face that protects the army’s iron fist? This was the precise question I put to him in an interview for CNN-IBN in November 2011. At the time the country’s army chief was General Ashfaq Kayani.

“Q. If Imran Khan becomes prime minister will you accept a subordinate status or will you have the courage and strength to challenge General Kayani and the Corp Commanders and insist on civilian supremacy?

A. If I am to implement my agenda, which means I take responsibility for everything that’s happening in Pakistan, it also means that the army is under me. It means the ISI can do nothing unless it reports to me. It means that the army budget is audited by a civilian set up.

Q. In a nutshell, what you’re saying is if Imran Khan becomes prime minister he will be General Kayani’s boss. He will be any and every army chief’s boss?

A. 100 per cent. I have never ever, ever been controlled by anyone. If people give me a mandate to be prime minister, I cannot be someone’s puppet.”

Seven years ago, those were strong words but at the time there was no credible prospect of Khan becoming PM. Today there is but he seems to be singing a very different tune. He now calls the army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, “The most pro-democratic man we have ever seen”. In which case, presumably, Khan would have no problem deferring to his supremacy. It would not be a threat to Pakistan’s fledgling democracy.

The truth is in 2018, Imran Khan’s electoral victory has been substantially shaped by the army. First, were the efforts to hobble his principal rival Nawaz Sharif’s party, after Sharif himself had been politically debarred. Over 100 of its candidates were ‘encouraged’ to switch loyalties or return their tickets. Those that resisted were harassed, their movements monitored and restricted and their electoral banners removed. The BBC reports that nearly 17,000 of Sharif’s party members were charged with criminal cases for breaking unspecified election rules.

Equally importantly, the army facilitated permission for extremist organisations to contest the polls under new aliases. This was designed to split Sharif’s vote in his Punjab heartland. As a result some 200 Lashkar-e-Taiba candidates were in the field. Others like Fazlur-Rehman Khalil of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen directly joined Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf. 

On election day, the army’s presence was overwhelming. Over 370,000 troops were deployed both inside and outside polling stations. They were granted magistrate powers to hold on-the-sport trials of anyone accused of breaking laws and, thereafter, sentence them. This was a clear message to the Pakistani people to vote as the army would prefer.

The country’s Human Rights Commission Chairman, Mehdi Hasan called it a “blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempt to manipulate the outcome of the elections”.

The army also ensured that Khan got favourable treatment from the Pakistani media. Reports of his second wife Reham Khan’s book were few and far between. Thus any damage they could have done to Khan’s image was effectively precluded. Whilst newspapers and television widely reported his rallies they held back on criticism of Khan. As Raza Rumi, the editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times, said this was “self-censorship”. It was, he added, “unwritten, unstated … all very subtle and carefully orchestrated.” Once again, the iron hand of the army was not difficult to discern.

No wonder Imran Khan was called the army’s ‘laadla’. He didn’t bristle at this moniker but welcomed it. It put him in pole position.

So now Khan is in no position to stand up to Gen. Bajwa leave aside challenge the army’s traditional control over security policies and relations with India, the United States, China and Afghanistan. Of course, the army chief will permit him to ‘display’ independence but that is likely to be a cover story. In actual fact he owes his success to the army high command. That will make for a very different relationship behind the scenes.

So in this light how should we judge Khan’s thursday speech when, as putative prime minister, he reached out to India? “We are ready to improve relations with India,” he said. “If they take one step we’ll take two.” Khan also promised to develop trade ties. “The more we do business with each other the more both will benefit.” And he said he was keen “to find a solution to Kashmir”. He said it could be resolved through dialogue.

The question is, does this reflect new thinking on the part of Gen. Bajwa and the army? Or is Khan out on a limb? It’s hard to believe Khan would breach the army’s redlines in his first speech. It’s equally difficult to accept the army has chosen this moment and manner to reveal a new attitude to India. Whatever the truth, I doubt if Imran Khan will fall out of step with Pakistan’s generals.
Karan Thapar’s autobiography ‘Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story’ was launched on July 25