K Ramachandra Murthy

Imran Khan would be the first ever international cricket captain to assume prime minister’s mantle in any country when he takes oath of office on Saturday. For those of us who watched Imran Khan’s exploits on the cricket pitch would tend to give him the benefit of doubt on the question of succeeding as a prime minister. The way he came back from retirement and led an ordinary team to win the 1992 World Cup made him a legend. The remarkable leadership qualities and the enormous patience paid him the dividends in political arena as well. The tenacity of the man who waited for more than two decades for the coveted post has been outstanding when you consider the fact that he did not move out of the country after losing elections as Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif did. He chose to stay put in Pakistan and fight his political battles in a focused manner. Notwithstanding his alleged serial infidelity and the devastating book by his ex- wife Reham Khan, Imran obtained the popular mandate to preside over the destiny of Pakistan for the next five years. The luck brought in by third wife and spiritual advisor, Bushra Maneka, would hopefully continue to serve him.

In the process of establishing himself as a serious politician, the cricketer-playboy-turned-politician had flirted with the obscurantist religious right and moved perilously closer to the army establishment. He had voted in favour of religious laws that make it impossible to prosecute the accused in rape cases. During his election campaign, he defended the illiberal blasphemy law. He favours Sharia law. Though Imran, like Benazir, studied at Oxford, he was critical of western educated elite who are considered to be secular and modern-minded. Indians wholeheartedly loved him as a cricketer but they have reason to detest him as a politician since he vowed in his election speeches to wrest Kashmir and humble India. After he was declared winner, however, he appeared sober in his victory speech saying that he would strive to improve relations with India and Afghanistan. One point of solace for the people of India is that all the religion-based parties and the apologists of terrorism were decisively rejected by Pakistani voters.

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New to administration, Imran has a crisis-ridden country to rule. He has two very serious issues to tackle in order to survive. The foremost problem is the Army. The second is the economy. The army in Pakistan was never confined to the barracks. It has been ruling the country directly or indirectly for most part of its existence. The limited or guided democracy was possible whenever the army allowed. Nawaz Sharif also was the creation of General Zia-ul-Haq to start with. Once he was in power, Sharif developed his own business power circle distancing from the ‘establishment.’ He paid for the ‘folly.’ Imran is equally smart and bold. But the stranglehold of the army is far greater now. To swing away from the generals, he needs more of the skills and tact that made him an unparalleled speedster-cum-swing bowler. Khan owed his success, though partly, to the covert support lent by the generals and ISI spooks. The super ego he suffers from would not allow him to play second fiddle even to the army. One cannot say whether he would succeed. But he is not one to give up without a fight.

Pakistan’s economy today is similar to India’s in 1991 before PV Narasimha Rao became prime minister and introduced reforms. It will be forced to seek a huge (12 billion dollars) bailout from International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the fourth time since 1980. It is on the brink of a balance-of-payment crisis. The teetering economy is on the edge thanks mainly to the lavish loans offered generously by China and spent recklessly by Pakistan. The loans make it mandatory for Pakistan to buy goods and services from China. In the bargain, Pakistan gets China’s solid diplomatic and political support. Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal have already been caught in the Chinese web.

Law and order is going to be another important problem Imran will have to grapple with. Pakistan is the promoter as well as the victim of terrorism. There have been running battles between Islamists schooled in jihad and the secular elite. It is part of the historical legacy that the new prime minister has to contend with. When Imran criticised the US drone attacks against terrorists, he was nicknamed ‘Taliban Khan.’ Having been associated and sympathetic with terrorist leaders, it is extremely difficult for him to wage a war against terrorism. Fighting corruption was the plank on which Imran based his election discourse. It has to be seen how far he would succeed where none did earlier. However, 22 years after launching Pakistan Tehreek –e-Insaf (PTI), meaning movement for justice, Imran, 65 year old, remains even today a passionate, volatile, aggressive and unpredictable man who is dictated by his heart. Can he wriggle out of the embrace of the army which expects him to payback for the help it rendered?

Countries like India and the US are in a dilemma unable to decide whether to welcome or ignore the flamboyant leader. Entertaining him even before the controversy about the alleged rigging of the elections died down would lend legitimacy to a dubious win. Ignoring him for too long would be seen as negating the democratic exercise even if dictated to some extent by the army. Not inviting Indian prime minister or any other foreign dignitary to be guests at the oath taking ceremony is a blessing in disguise for Narendra Modi who would not have liked to visit Pakistan a few months before elections. Ties between the neighbours have remained tense since the Mumbai terror attack in 2008. The attack on Uri by Pakistan-based terrorists worsened the relationship further. As elections are fast approaching Indian politicians also will be indulging in Pakistan-bashing. Any move to engage Imran Khan in a dialogue will take place only after the general elections are out of the way.