Imran Khan is on ‘the same page’ with the army because the Pakistan army has intended it to be so.
On his 99th day in power Wednesday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan laid the foundation stone for building a corridor between Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistani Punjab and Dera Baba Nanak in Indian Punjab. On his side stood the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Indian leadership trio of Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Hardeep Singh Puri and Navjot Singh Sidhu and a host of other dignitaries.
While Badal, Puri, Sidhu & Co accompanied Imran Khan into the shamiana for the rest of the ceremony, Bajwa returned to his day job at General Headquarters, Rawalpindi. But why did he leave?
Considering Imran Khan has, since, fondly put out several times that he, Pakistan’s political parties, including his own, and the army are “all on the same page”, why did the army chief do the disappearing act?
The answer lies in the swirl of conspiracy theories that are as long as they are intriguing. Bajwa was busy. He didn’t want to be seen alongside Imran Khan in a civilian function, just in case his presence diminished an elected leader. A photo-op with three Indian leaders could not be politically cool, even if India was forced to agree to Pakistan’s decision to allow visa-free entry for Sikh pilgrims into Pakistan.
In which case, why did Bajwa come all the way to Kartarpur sahib at all?
Since Lahore is as polluted as Delhi – the stubble on the wheat fields is burning everywhere – the answers are not easy. Perhaps, the key lies in Imran Khan’s own candid statement. Fact is, Imran Khan, his party, his government and Pakistan’s army are on the “same page” because right from the start the military establishment established significant control over Imran Khan. The PM seems happy with the velvet glove because, unlike Nawaz Sharif or Benazir Bhutto, he’s okay with the steel hand inside. He knows fully well there’s a ‘lakshman rekha’ in this play and that he, unlike Lord Ram, must forever be condemned to play his part on the periphery.
So, here’s a short list of what people are saying about Imran Khan in Pakistan these days:
1. The man remains hugely popular: Despite his controversial personal life – marriage to a Jewish heiress, a sleaze-and-slush book by second wife Reham Khan published during the election campaign, allegationsabout an illegitimate child that he didn’t acknowledge at first – Imran Khan’s open and boyish charm is crucial to this project. Equally, the man’s 22-year-long commitment to politics in Pakistan, when he could have just as easily lived anywhere in the west because things were oh-so-terrible back home, keeps him honest.
2. Bushra Bibi or Pinky Pirni, whom Imran Khan is believed to have marriedbecause she is believed to have predicted and promised to protect his rise and rise to the Prime Minister’s Office, remains a key, if shadowy, figure. She is believed to be a major influence on key political appointments. Rumours are rife that The Bibi didn’t want her husband to travel abroad for three months, but the army guys insisted he alleviate the economic suffering by requesting loans from Saudi Arabia and China.
Like most good husbands, on the 100th day celebrations of his party in power Thursday, Imran publicly thanked his wife for staying by his side through these tough days.
3. Imran Khan remains beholden to “the boys in Rawalpindi” because they helped tip him into the PM’s chair. When the votes were counted 26-27 July, Pakistan Tehreef-e-Insaf (PTI) had won 116 seats out of 270. By the time he was sworn in as PM on 18 August, he had persuaded several minor political parties to support him.
4. The Pakistan army has become an even more important player because despite the faltering economy, the all-powerful army’s corporate interests are growing. In July 2016, the Pakistani Senate was told that the army ran over 50 commercial entities worth $20billion. From petrol pumps to milk dairies, banks, bakeries and schools and cement plants, the army’s corporate empire is expanding and needs to be fed.
One reason why the army came on board for opening up of Kartarpur, and may now pave the way for trade with India, is because it realised that trade is a perfectly legitimate way of making money.
5. China: The Chinese are investing $60 billion in Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and are believed to have advised Imran Khan to help find a way to ease the tension with India’s huge market next door. If China can be Taiwan’s largest trading partner despite the fact that the mainland covets the island, the Chinese are said to have advised Rawalpindi to come up with ideas that could ease the pressure with India.
6. Imran Khan likes India. He has several friends here. At the bottom of his heart, he knows that Pakistan’s survival is somehow linked to India’s chaotic democracy. So why not open up the doors to these people next door?
7. The Pakistan army is under considerable pressure from the outside world to show results in the war against terror in Afghanistan and at home. They know they can’t fight so many battles on so many fronts at the same time. They need to take the pressure off in the east — India. They have asked Imran Khan to open up the relationship so that some controlled measure of healing and reconciliation takes place.
Moral of the story? Imran Khan is on “the same page” with the army not only because he knows that things cannot be otherwise, but because the army has intended it to be so.
Certainly, there’s no point confronting Military Inc. with the idea that the elected government will be the sole arbiter of power, especially with its foreign and defence policy. Better to share. To divide up and rule.