The Imran Khan Factor in Pakistan
Khan is certainly 'not out'
It is an unsavoury proposition always, be it in India or Pakistan, when political power is usurped by fly-by-night operators who engineer defections from a ruling party, and an established government gets overthrown despite its mandate to govern.
In India — so far, at least — such shenanigans leading to regime change at the federal or state level have not been manipulated by foreign powers — except, perhaps, in the ouster of the first communist government in the southern state of Kerala, way back in 1959.
In South Asian politics, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives have been chronic cases where foreign interference in their domestic politics has become endemic. But they are either small countries or weak states, vulnerable to external pressure.
It was the first time that the curse of foreign interference appeared in a big South Asian country such as Pakistan when the US openly sought the removal of then-Prime Minister Imran Khan, and a regime change indeed ensued within a short period of time.
To what extent the political forces that constituted the successor regime in Islamabad drew encouragement from Washington to usurp power, we do not know, and may never. But given the political elite's past record of rentier mentality, such a thing cannot be ruled out.
Although those elites in India and Pakistan have strong similarities, the Pakistani (civilian) elite has long held a tradition of looking over their shoulder for US approval.
Imran Khan himself insists that this was precisely what happened, and therefore, he has called his protest movement a "jihad." Indeed, the abrupt warming up of the US-Pakistan relationship, which was in a state of disrepair under Khan, no sooner than he was ousted, also signified the Biden administration's delight and sense of relief over the regime change in Pakistan.
As for Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who had no time for Pakistan previously, the sudden upbeat tone of his personal diplomacy toward the new ruling elite in Islamabad, which is also drawn from powerful political dynasties that are intimately known to the US establishment, distinctly conveyed the impression that on his cold war chessboard, he could now count on a new pawn to be pitted against China (and Russia.)
However, such euphoria was short-lived. Contrary to the estimations, including in India, that Imran Khan's political career was over, events have shown that he is still very much Pakistan's current history, and, if anything, it is the usurpers in Islamabad who are relics from the past.
To be sure, Khan's "jihad" has taken the form of a tsunami that today threatens to drown the usurpers. The manner in which he has stormed the heartland of Punjab in Sunday's by-elections must be sending alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power, not only in Lahore but also in Islamabad.
The mammoth crowds that follow Imran Khan everywhere are indeed turning into votes. Without doubt, it is after a very long time that a truly charismatic politician has appeared on the Pakistani political landscape.
Khan has stunned his detractors and political opponents by taking control of the crucial Punjab provincial assembly. His party won 15 of 20 seats up for grab in by-elections, trouncing arch-rival Pakistan Muslim League-N (which incidentally heads the federal government in Islamabad also since April after Imran Khan's ouster) on its home ground.
The result is not only a major blow for current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif but is also widely regarded as a foretaste of what could happen in a general election. Imran Khan has been demanding an early general election which is otherwise due in October 2023.
The conventional wisdom that the Pakistani military establishment would feel challenged by such a spectre has been proven wrong this time around (which also augurs well for the country's political future.) Fundamentally, the axiom that a Pakistani civilian politician who developed differences with the military leadership would be a fallen angel ever condemned to oblivion has also withered away.
In fact, the swiftness of Imran Khan's return to centre stage is awesome, as if he never quit the centre stage and the usurpers were mere interlopers.
Imran Khan has rewritten Pakistan's political history by knocking at the doors of political power so soon after his ouster by an unholy alliance of time servers with foreign patronage.
If the election results from Punjab have conveyed one single thing, it is that the people of that country have understood what democratic empowerment is and are determined to voice their opinion.
And that opinion is, unmistakably, that the regime change in Lahore following the ouster of Imran Khan's party from power was a repugnant episode, and must be undone. The strong likelihood is that it also becomes a signpost for those in power in Islamabad.
Given Pakistan's grave economic challenges, political stability is an imperative need, and the last thing the country deserves is to be burdened with a national government which lacks legitimacy. When a country is faced with such a predicament, the only way out is to hold fresh elections that can hopefully bring to power a new, stable government with the mandate to rule.
Of course, mandate only gives legitimacy to rule and does not necessarily guarantee good governance — Bangladesh is, perhaps, a solitary exception in the South Asian region — but that is something that we can learn to live with as a fact of life in our part of the world.
Imran Khan's "jihad" is not a call for anarchy. Nor is he stirring up a "colour revolution". He is, on the contrary, a factor of stability for Pakistan — strictly abiding by the rule of law and constitutional order. He is only demanding a new government with a mandate to rule, a cause that he has consistently espoused since signs of a US-sponsored political coup against him began to crystallize.
The real danger is that if there is a disconnect between the rulers and the ruled, it not only weakens the incumbent government and affects decision-making, especially when difficult decisions need to be taken, but also that political drift could spawn anarchical conditions. And that is an eventuality Pakistan can ill afford in the prevailing circumstances.
It is possible that Khan may be returned to power in fresh elections. It is equally possible that his party may once again fall short of a majority and has to build a coalition, or, alternatively, reconcile with the role of an opposition. But the present logjam needs to be broken, nonetheless. And that is only possible through new elections.
Political instability in Pakistan will be detrimental to the country's long term interests at the present juncture in global affairs, where it has a serious role to play as a major regional power.
Pakistan has a lot going for it in the emergent world order characterized by multipolarity. It is up to the Pakistani political elite not to goof up, in their mad scramble for power. That makes fresh elections in the shortest possible time a dire necessity.
Ambassador M.K.Bhadrakumar is retired from the Indian Foreign Service.