His Master’s Voice: Imran Khan is only the new mask on Pakistan’s old face

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The electoral process has come to an end in Pakistan. As was widely expected, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has emerged as the single largest party, ahead of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N). The electoral process suggested the throttling of opposition parties and maintaining the sham of free elections. In particular, the PML(N) was at the receiving end of a pincer-like stranglehold of the Pakistan Army and judiciary.

While some celebrate the peaceful transition of democratic power in Pakistan, in effect, this is the shameless continuation of a controlled and subverted democracy.

This gives the Army Chief power without responsibility and influence without accountability. Martial law is dead, long live the army!

A peek into Pakistan’s recent past is instructive.

Nawaz Sharif during his previous campaign had fought elections on the plank of better relations with India. A couple of years into his term, the reality of a government with a clear, popular mandate became evident. He was cornered by a flurry of protests and a barrage of legal cases.

Sharif’s dare was not only blunted by the army, he was also defanged in the process. Rendered ineligible to fight elections, he found himself in jail, in the eternal hope of reversing his political fortunes. Unfortunately for him, his future was destined to be shaped by the Pakistan Army.

Imran Khan, who had been making the right noises and perceptible overtures to the army, became the obvious choice in the elections.

As a result, he gained in both popular mandate and a substantial seat share – on the verge of a majority. This has brought him closer to the hot seat in Pakistan. Amongst his immediate responses, not surprisingly, India found a place in his televised speech. From India’s perspective, this raises the obvious questions: Will he prove to be any different from Nawaz? What will be his approach to Kashmir? And finally, can India do business with him?

Imran’s initial statements are far more pragmatic than those made by Nawaz Sharif.

His approach of keeping Kashmir at the centre of any dialogue with India echoes the Pakistan Army’s line – This is however in contrast with India’s stance of keeping terrorism perpetuated by Pakistan as the basis for any meaningful talks with the country.

These initial impressions suggest that he will indeed be different from Nawaz, though only more suppliant of the army’s policy towards India. There is likely to be more coherence in civil-military relations in Pakistan, unlike the embarrassing leaks published by Dawn, which clearly indicated a schism in the past. Imran’s delicate majority in the days to come, potentially with army-coerced support, could further limit his manoeuvring space. This leaves little leeway for Imran to bowl his dipping in-swingers, even with the new ball.

The reality of Imran’s approach towards Kashmir suggests that he will not be allowed to have an independent policy on Kashmir, or, for that matter, with regard to India. He is likely to remain the democratic mouthpiece of the Pakistan Army. His master’s voice, if one may describe it as such.

This implies that the employment of terrorism as state policy by Pakistan is likely to continue.

This is until the Pakistan Army finds it either profitable to switch to other options like turning off the terrorism tap, or, is forced under pressure from India and major stakeholders in the region, (read the United States and China) to seek an alternative course of action. This could be influenced by financial constraints, which force Pakistan to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund, where US pressure can influence decision making. Or, it could be a result of unacceptable punishment in the battle of attrition that may emerge along the LoC.

India has and will continue to engage with Pakistan, as has been done in the past. However, this does not necessarily imply that talks can or will be held, merely because of a change of government. The reality is that the mask has changed, even as the face behind it continues to remain the same.

The Pakistan Army will call the shots while negotiating with major powers in the neighbourhood and more so, where security takes precedence over other issues.

The statement from the MEA reflects India’s reality check. There seem to be few illusions of an immediate breakthrough. India’s priority must remain a sustained outreach towards Kashmir’s youth. The powers that be should remain willing to go the extra mile, in a bid to create the right atmosphere and achieve the desirable breakthrough on our own side of the LoC. Even as this policy is strengthened, across the LoC, Pakistan must be dealt with strictly on merit – rather than any trace of sentimentality.

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