In the course of separate conversations in Mumbai and New Delhi, author and veteran Pakistan expert Tilak Devasher explained to The Indian Express’s Nirupama Subramanian and a select group of the newspaper’s readers why it may be futile to look for the ‘real’ Imran Khan — and why his being ‘on the same page of the same book’ with the Pakistan Army may be a double-edged sword.
Devasher is a former bureaucrat who retired as Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Acknowledged as an expert on Pakistan, Devasher writes on developments in South Asia with a focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is the author of Pakistan: Courting the Abyss and Pakistan: At the Helm.
On what Imran Khan stands for in his politics, whether he is a centrist, a liberal, or ‘Taliban’ Khan
I am not sure Imran Khan knows himself; he has come to mean many things to many people. But more than ideological labels, there are three things that are going to stand out in his tenure as Prime Minister.
First, his strong belief in an Islamic welfare state — according to him, Pakistan’s problems stem from the fact that it has been unable to devise a political system to implement the egalitarian, democratic, ethical principles of Islam, which include the rule of law, justice, compassion, and welfare. But given the sectarianism and radicalisation in Pakistan today, this seems like a very simplistic and ambitious idea.
Second, his fight against corruption. According to him, Pakistanis began to lose hope from the 1990s on, when the country was plunged into semi-anarchy, with corruption destroying every institution. He set up Tehreek-e-Insaf in 1996 to fight for justice, and it was his efforts that ultimately led to the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister. But to come into power, Imran Khan has had to co-opt the so-called electables, the important people in the various districts, who come with the baggage of corruption. It’ll be interesting to see how far Imran Khan will go with his fight for justice.
The third obvious element is his personality — his determination, singleminded focus, and his belief that he can achieve things. In his first address, he said he had the power to do muqabla, he could fight over any issue and emerge successful. As a cricketer, he was dropped after his first Test [in June 1971], and the press used to call him Imran Can’t rather than Imran Khan. It took him a long time [until July 1974] to get back into the side, and the rest is history. Likewise with the Shaukat Khanum Hospital. People scoffed at him, saying you can’t set up a free cancer hospital, but he showed that he could. The same happened with the educational institution he set up in Mianwali. He has tremendous determination and will power. The flip side is that such a strong belief in yourself can also lead to arrogance, and to a feeling that he alone knows what needs to be done, he alone can achieve the impossible.
On assorted jihadists and Islamic fundamentalists contesting the recent Pakistan elections
The major takeaway from this development is the mainstreaming of the jihadi elements who, despite having lost, are now mainstream political figures. This is a huge ideological change as far as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa are concerned. After opposing western democracy and elections as “un-Islamic” for years, Hafiz Saeed has had a change of heart primarily to get his people mainstream, because of pressure from the Pakistan Army who themselves are under considerable [international] pressure [for their links to jihadists].
While a jihadist can theoretically be mainstreamed, mainstreaming jihadists without de-weaponisation, de-radicalisation, and re-education runs the risk of infecting mainstream religious parties or even mainstream political parties. None of these people who contested and have now become mainstream have been de-radicalised. Their rhetoric continues to be extreme, and you may soon find mainstream religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami or the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam adopting hardline rhetoric to match the rhetoric of these people.
The rise of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan [which has won two seats in the Sindh Provincial Assembly] is a very significant development because it is the assertion of the Barelvis. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Barelvi Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan was strong, but the party went into decline because the Afghan jihad shifted the focus of attention to the Deobandis and the Ahl-e-Hadees. Now suddenly the Barelvis have come up again, and they have established themselves as the fifth largest party in terms of voteshare, they’ve won 2.2 million votes, and they’ve got more votes in the Punjab Assembly than the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. Does this mean the Establishment is now looking at the Barelvis instead of the Deobandis? We have to wait and see. But no extremism, be it of the Deobandi or the Salafi or the Barelvi kind, can be good.
On Imran Khan being the Pakistan Establishment’s “selected Prime Minister”
In 2002, Imran Khan was in negotiations with Gen Pervez Musharraf, he was considering joining Musharraf, and had had a couple of secret meetings with him. But he backed out after realising that Musharraf’s cabinet would be full of corrupt people. The go-between, Maj Gen Ehtesham Zamir of the ISI, told him that the reality of Pakistan was that people voted for crooks. As Imran backed out, Musharraf warned him of the consequences of not joining the government, and sure enough, the PTI won only a single seat. This time around, Imran Khan realised that to be Prime Minister, he would have to do a deal with the Establishment. For the Army, the dilemma was that they did not want the PML(N) to return to power, and Asif Zardari was anathema because of his strong statements against the Army. Also, the PPP has no presence in Punjab, and no amount of engineering could have brought it victory there. Imran Khan was the only option, and he had the added advantage of the singleminded focus against Nawaz Sharif, which was what the Army wanted. But while Imran Khan brings to the table opposition to Nawaz Sharif, his victory has been arranged in such a manner that even though his is the largest party, even with independents and smaller parties, he has only a slender majority in the 342-member National Assembly. So, if at any time Imran Khan starts getting ideas that he is an awaami person, the Army can pull the rug from under his feet. They won’t at the moment, since he is their man. They will allow him the space to govern, especially on internal issues. I don’t see a problem for the next two years at least. But this possibility will always be there.
On Imran Khan and the Army being “on the same page”
Not only are they on the same page, according to Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, they are reading from the same book. [Minister for Information and Broadcasting] Fawad Chaudhry has said the key difference between Imran Khan’s government and the previous government is that [Army Chief] Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and Imran share the same vision of prosperity of the region. While that’s a very positive thing, my caveat would be that if the same page, and if the book, points in the direction of normalisation of relations with India, it’s excellent, and we’ll come to know that very soon on the ground through levels of LoC firing and infiltration, etc. — but what if the same page, or the same book that they’re on, is not normalisation of relations with India? Earlier, when there was a difference between the civil government and the military, you always had the hope that a leader like Nawaz Sharif would try and have some talks, but now, if both are on the same page and that page is not conducive to normalisation, then we are where we were. So let’s hope that the same page they are on, is conducive to normalisation and of better relations with India…
On the report in The New York Times that the Pakistan Army is keen on some kind of engagement
Every Pak Army Chief, if you go back, whether Ashfaq Parvez Kayani or Raheel Sharif, has talked about having good, normal relations. That way, Bajwa saying the same thing is par for the course… The reason why Pakistan was doing this; that was the important thing — international isolation, the pressure of the US withholding $1 billion in aid in January and now $300 million just before [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo’s visit, a precarious economy… My point would be that if the Pakistan Army was serious about wanting to talk, now that you have a civilian government which is on the same page, why not say so openly? It does not mean that it has to be a public announcement or a press release; there are so many channels through which this message can be conveyed, instead of leaving hints, signalling, subterfuge. If you want something, even through diplomatic channels, there are possibilities of doing it… The NYT article was clearly based on a deliberate leak. I think Pakistan needs to come up — maybe they are finding their feet, maybe they don’t want to come out too openly because of domestic pressures — so, maybe in the near future, you will see something more concrete. I think we should wait for that.
On the possibility of India engaging separately with the Army and Pakistan’s civilian leaders
You can’t do that, because the Pakistan Army Chief has a unique position. He is not only head of the Army but also head of a political institution which has huge financial interests. And he can take decisions which the Indian Army Chief cannot take. So if you have somebody to talk to General Bajwa, you will probably require four or five officials from the Indian side to be able to talk to that one particular person. Now, if they are on the same page, the civilian government is there, you have Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. The conversation should be at that level. It should be presumed that it is coming with the clearance of the Army. Which Nawaz Sharif couldn’t do; he was always looking over his shoulder at the Army. I think Imran Khan, in the first year or two, will have the confidence that he is backed by the Army — if they are on the same page or reading from the same book.
On whether shutting Pakistan out, stopping all engagement, is an option
It is neither feasible nor desirable, for the simple reason that you can’t escape geography. You have a difficult neighbour, you have to deal with the neighbour; you can’t get away from it. Number two, we are talking to Pakistan on a daily basis. We have a 100-plus mission in Islamabad; they have a 100-plus mission in New Delhi. Almost on a daily basis, whether it is prisoners, trade, visas, conversations are being held… You can’t isolate yourself from Pakistan, even though it is a difficult neighbour. Everybody knows that. I don’t think it is feasible, desirable to block yourself from Pakistan.
On Imran Khan’s assertion that if India takes one step forward, Pakistan will take two, and what that one step by India could be
I am not sure what India can do in the environment that is there. If you look at the last four years or even before that, earlier there was a very strong back channel, and conversations were held over an extended period of time. Then when the NDA government came, invitations were made, all the SAARC leaders including Nawaz Sharif came. The Prime Minister went to Lahore. I don’t know what else India can do…
On whether the Prime Minister can go to the SAARC summit in Pakistan, revive SAARC
I am not very hopeful about SAARC being a relevant forum anymore. The point is that we need international forums where the two Prime Ministers can meet on the sidelines, without the glare of the media, and talk things over, like they have done earlier — on the sidelines of the Paris climate change talks, we saw that huddle between Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Modi. Certainly you need forums, but there are forums other than SAARC. I am sceptical because I don’t think there is anything left in SAARC. I somehow don’t see it being revived or being an effective platform, because SAARC always gets bogged down in Indo-Pak. There are certainly other forums — the UN is one, SCO is another, all kinds of conferences take place internationally . The important thing is to have a forum, a platform, where the ice can be broken.