Monday, January 30, 2023
HomeOpinionGlobal PrintImran Khan’s having a coming-of-age moment. And it's shaking up the Sharifs

Imran Khan’s having a coming-of-age moment. And it’s shaking up the Sharifs

Imran Khan or Shehbaz Sharif, the test of good neighbourliness will be real action against conspirators of the Mumbai attacks. India must wait and watch.

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Results from by-elections in 20 seats in Pakistan’s Punjab over the weekend have set the cat among the pigeons. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf has won 15 of those seats, a sweep that puts him in pole position not just to topple the Punjab government, which is run by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s son Hamza, but also to shake Sharif’s citadel in Islamabad.

There’s more. As Pakistan climbs into the winter, the all-important question of whether Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa is going to get an extension or not will move front and centre. If Imran Khan shoves Shehbaz Sharif out of the way and climbs back into the seat, which he so reluctantly left in early April, then what are General Bajwa’s chances?

The die is cast in Pakistan. It will roll now. But it is all too clear once more that the direction of its rolling will be shaped by the military establishment. Shehbaz Sharif has called for talks with the Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s coalition partner, Asif Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) on Tuesday, but so far all sides seem determined to carry on with the government until it completes its tenure in mid-2023.

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Shahbaz Sharif’s ground realities

Sharif’s current bravado probably stems from two factors. First, his big brother Nawaz Sharif made him prime minister and his son the Punjab chief minister in April, he shouldn’t let him down so quickly.

Second, and more importantly, what does the Pakistani military establishment want? If Bajwa believes early elections will allow him to retain the role of the master puppeteer, then they will more than likely. But there’s a catch.

If early elections—which is what Imran Khan also wants—bring the PTI back to power, then Khan is likely to push the envelope so hard that Bajwa would have to give way to his favourite general, former ISI chief Faiz Hamid, now the commander of the Peshawar corps.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The moral of the massive political upset in Pakistan this weekend is that the people of Punjab decided to teach Nawaz Sharif a lesson, to tell him that just because Punjab is widely considered his stronghold, they cannot take him for granted.

They didn’t like the International Monetary Fund-inspired medicine that the government had begun to push in order to rein in sky-high inflation, bring prices down a notch or two, control the runaway exchange rate to the dollar and generally institute a measure of toughness. Pakistan’s economy is going broke and someone needs to take strong measures. But Shehbaz Sharif is seen as a PM constantly looking over his shoulders, unable to generate the trust that would allow the government to take those strong measures.

Second, Imran Khan ably hijacked the anti-military establishment narrative that had once made Nawaz Sharif and his party so popular. Khan’s two-pronged political campaign—against the “foreign conspiracy” (read, the United States) that pulled the rug from under his government and independence from the military establishment—struck a chord with the voter.

The irony, of course, is that when Imran Khan came to power in 2018, he was an out and out puppet of the military establishment, which did not want either of the two mainstream parties, Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) or the PPP to take charge. Khan was their puppet on a string.

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Imran Khan’s coming of age

How things change so quickly. Imran Khan has run a determined campaign from the day he was ousted from power about being ‘unfairly ousted’. He held one massive political rally after another across the country, ignoring journalists who said these were gimmicky.

Khan’s coming-of-age moment in Pakistani politics today has enlarged Pakistan’s political space. He is no longer the ‘playboy’ abroad who made good at home, although the question of what kind of deal he will still strike with the military establishment to enable his return, remains to be seen.

Does this mean that PM Shehbaz Sharif and his wily co-conspirator Asif Zardari as well as the sharpest political mind in exile, Nawaz Sharif, have given up the fight? Since that option is unlikely, the coming weeks are bound to be politically eventful in Pakistan.

Certainly for India, the Shehbaz Sharif government has tried to open a new chapter of cooperation with the June arrest of Sajid Mir, who helped direct reconnaissance for the Lashkar-e-Taiba when it attacked Mumbai in 2008. There has been some speculation here that the Narendra Modi government would have liked to return to some sort of normality with Pakistan, like reopening trade relations.

But everything will now take time. Under Imran Khan too, trade relations were at the point of being reopened, but then someone in Islamabad remembered that Article 370 had been removed from Jammu and Kashmir.

Whether or not Imran Khan comes back to power, or if Shehbaz Sharif remains PM, the test of good neighbourliness will be real action on the masterminds and conspirators of the Mumbai attacks. Until then, India will watch Pakistan’s political musical chairs carefully but refrain from commenting.

Still, there’s no bar on wishing that things improve in Pakistan, which gives its rulers the courage to take tough calls as well as the first step to normality in the region.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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