The leadership of the ruling PML-N in Pakistan, including the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his heir-apparent daughter, Maryam Aurangzeb, routinely refer to Imran Khan, the flamboyant former cricketer and now the leader of Tehreek-e-Insaf, as a ladla (blue-eyed boy) of the kingmakers, meaning the military and the judiciary.
In a recent case in which Imran was acquitted from individual culpability, Chief Justice Saqib Nisar had to “call-out” the loaded aspersions against the judiciary by stating that “Imran Khan is not our ladla”. Beyond the sarcastic moniker, the 65-year-old Imran Khan is enviously positioned and popularly perceived as the establishment’s preferred choice in the forthcoming National Assembly elections.
Tehreek-e-Insaf had won the second largest number of popular votes in the last elections. The PPP won more seats with a lesser tally of total votes. Imran Khan now has the requisite infrastructure and administrative experience. This party won the tribal Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and above all, the apparent ‘backing’ required in the Pakistani context, specifically the blessings of the Generals, the Judges and the mullahs.
Imran Khan’s disruptive debut in Pakistani politics with a seemingly naïve agenda had endeared the celebrated Pathan from Mianwali, to the wary Generals, who till then had to oscillate between the more hardnosed politicians in the rival Bhutto and the Sharif clans. It is believed that General Pervez Musharaf had offered the office of Prime Minister to Imran.
The latter was prescient enough to recognise its potential ‘dummy’ status, given the past experience of the Generals and their lip-service to democracy. Subsequent denials notwithstanding, General Musharaf re-endorsed Imran recently, saying that he was a ‘better’ choice compared to the PML-N and PPP ~ “His popularity is on the rise, and he has the potential to improve the country’s situation and do something beneficial for Pakistan”.
In the crippling Azadi March and the accompanying street protests of 2014,
Imran Khan along with cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri had created a political, physical and moral deadlock for the ruling PML-N dispensation. There were rumours that it was the Pakistan Army that was orchestrating the protests, in order to rein in the ruling political party. The military has probably realised that a more backstage management, with the facade of a civilian government, is more agreeable to all domestic and international stakeholders.
Military dictators, notably Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq, and Pervez Musharaf, tended to become unpopular over time. For this backstage arrangement, an ‘aligned’ civilian government is imperative. The key matters of ‘alignment’ for the military are the retention of the disproportionately large budgets for itself, the final say in foreign affairs and the India factor, and an invaluable stake in the nuclear programme as it buttresses the position of the military further still ~ psychologically, emotionally and internationally.
Therefore whenever, Nawaz Sharif offered a window of rapprochement or dialogue with India, it would invariably be followed up with a major terror attack in India to derail the process. Currently, given the fractured relationship of the Pakistani military and the ruling PML-N, and with the similar institutional unease with the PPP, the Rawalpindi GHQ is left with Imran Khan as its preferred choice or ladla.
The PPP’s founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by General Zia-ul-Haq and his daughter Benazir’s murder had led to allegations that the protection provided by General Musharraf was inadequate. On his part, Imran has also pitched for the independence and empowerment of the judiciary, unlike the PML-N and the PPP which are traditionally at odds with the courts, given the multiplicity of cases against them.
The man who could be king leads a ‘centrist’ party (Tehreek-e-Insaf) that has calculatedly highlighted the fundamental malaise of Pakistan by making robust presentations on endemic corruption, kinship, feudalism, protection of minorities and foreign policy. Imran has let it be known that he is against US hypocrisy and the drone attacks on the Af-Pak frontier. He insists on Pakistani ‘self-dignity and respect’.
His vision is inspired by the poet Allama Iqbal’s Islamic Social State, with shades of Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey, albeit with the imperatives of religiosity as would be required in the Pakistan of today. Unlike the predominantly Sindhi tilt of the PPP and the Punjabi affiliation of PML-N, Imran’s personal appeal cuts across the demographics and regions, especially amongst the restive youth. His Lahore upbringing, the Niazi-Pashtun bloodline and Mianwali ancestry have helped him to countenance Punjabi-Pathan sensibilities.
For India, the self-confessed moderate will always be constrained by a certain predefined sovereign-line on Kashmir. He has always insisted on dialogue and avoided talking of militaristic solutions to the Kashmir issue, as is often the wont of Opposition leaders. However, Imran is also known to ‘contextualise’ terror, as opposed to unequivocal condemnation. He has backed the international terrorist, Hafiz Saeed, and his party did submit adjournment notices on banning Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD).
His tweet summarized his perception when he described the Kashmiri freedom movement as terrorism. He believes that Donald Trump is siding with “oppressor India” and has iterated the standard Pakistani line regarding “Indian interference in Afghanistan”. He will be expected to tip-toe on the twin track of Kashmir and terror, in order to keep the Pakistani establishment and stakeholders content.
Imran Khan professes an urbane and seemingly more honest leadership with the likes of Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Jahangir Khan, Asad Umar etc. The official line that ‘PTI is an idea whose time has come’ may well ring true in July. However, the ladla of the Generals and the judiciary will have to manage the essential contradictions, intrigues and compulsions that define Pakistan.
He is often referred to as ‘Teflon Khan’ as opposed to ‘Taliban Khan’. The domestic focus on transparency, modernity and reforms are perhaps the more realistic agendas that can be expected from Pakistan’s Prime Minister-in waiting ~ Imran Khan Niazi.
The writer, Bhopinder Singh, IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.