There has been considerable speculation about what prospects the advent of Pakistan’s former cricket captain Imran Khan as his country’s Prime Minister holds for peace in the subcontinent. In India, most opinion veers on the cynical, judging by Imran’s known change of persona over the last few years in the quest of his ambition to lead his country. That this has brought him far more in convergence with the Pakistan Army’s thinking doesn’t really augur well for prospects of peace. The Army’s pre-eminence in that country’s pecking order is ensured only by its deep animosity with India, something Imran is unlikely to be able to change in any hurry, or even have any inclination to change. He has willingly partnered the Army to follow its diktats. Inexperienced in strategic affairs, he will be dependent hugely on the generals for guidance, although Pakistan’s diplomatic corps is still one of its best institutions. With India’s general election due in nine months or so, the subcontinent isn’t really ready for peace initiatives now, though a dose of peace always helps any incumbent political leadership. In India-Pakistan relations, however, the opposite is also true — where the deterioration of ties leads to nationalistic passions and may also help incumbent leaders. Realistically, it is only after June 2019 that there can be some forward movement; till then Imran Khan needs to get his act together to prevent the possibility of Pakistan finally transiting the status of failing state to failed state.
The new government in Islamabad will need an economic bailout package and work towards releasing Pakistan from the stranglehold of the terror and radical outfits that have been mainstreamed in this election. Imran may be in for a surprise if he does a reality check. The problems he can expect from India will be way down the ladder of serious threats. India is far too involved in its own internal challenges to desire any turbulence at the borders or in Jammu and Kashmir. If the Pakistani generals choose to keep the Line of Control quiet and calibrate the situation in the Kashmir Valley to just around the current levels or less, it is unlikely to draw too much response from India, which in a few months will be deeply involved in its own election process. However, the Pakistan Army always fears that inactivity in Kashmir gives India the opportunity to regain lost ground, both operationally and in the psychological space. Therefore, calibrated efforts to maintain violence and promote alienation will probably continue. Reports indicate that the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) of Maulana Masood Azhar, which managed to stay under the radar through the Pakistan polls, is expanding its training and holding facility near Bahawalpur with the security forces turning a blind eye. A bigger terror strike targeting India any time in the near future will call for a stronger response by India, especially in an election year. That is what the JeM wants to upend other groups and establish its primacy. That is where Imran’s challenge lies, and where the Pakistani “Deep State” may not be willing to assist him, bailout package or not.
There are other internal problems linked with Pakistan’s main partners — China and the United States — although many may challenge the notion of the US being Pakistan’s partner. The US need for Pakistan and vice versa can hardly be denied, and that steers the relationship through hot and cold. There is the political Opposition, which may have been defeated electorally but may wish to resolve issues on the streets. The mainstream parties — the Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz — once earlier got together in 2007-08 to create conditions to oust Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Given that precedent, we may not yet have seen the end of turbulence. The mainstreaming of some radical parties which took part in this election may also add to the country’s internal threats. Both these issues will not help Islamabad to obtain a bailout package.
The China factor remains significant. First, China itself is in the throes of a reset of ties with India after last year’s Doklam crisis virtually brought the two nations to the doorstep of an armed standoff. Any deterioration in India-Pakistan ties will be counter-productive to China’s strategic needs. Second, with much at stake in one of China’s largest overseas investments, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing doesn’t want to see any obstacles to its full actualisation. Those obstacles remain in Pakistan’s turbulent internal security, which threatens order that is so necessary for completion of the projects. The Pakistan Army’s inclination to use friendly terror groups as strategic assets against India is also something China may be actually uncomfortable about; despite its refusal to support the labelling of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. Now, with a reset of India-China ties, this issue may become a sticking point. It recently didn’t hold back from supporting the majority at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) decision to grey-list Pakistan. China’s relationship with Imran Khan and his PTI has not been too pleasant in recent years. The PTI has been extremely critical of the CPEC, and at one time even likened the project to a new British East India Company. The PTI’s five-month anti-government sit-in in Islamabad in 2014 had forced the postponement of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit at a time when he was keen to showcase some CPEC projects.
Yet China was the first country that Imran Khan chose to mention in his maiden speech after the election. Obviously, he is positing Pakistan closer to China, but the bailout package is not going to come from China, from where almost $5 billion has already been borrowed. He is obviously going along with popular sentiment in Pakistan, where anti-American feelings run high, but these will place him at odds with the first major issue that will confront him: the economy. Any bailout is likely to be contingent upon Western satisfaction about the measures undertaken against the extremist groups. Given this situation, Imran Khan will hardly be able to bowl at full pace; he may have to settle for a medium swing to test the waters, which are indeed going to be turbulent.