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Decoding the next Pakistan Prime Minister

With Khan’s politics offering something for everyone, his following is a mix of the cosmopolitan middle-class in urban Pakistan, who fear the progress of religious conservatism, and the religious conservatives who believe Pakistan is getting too westernised.
Poised to take over as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan had to wait 22 years, most of them on the margins of his country’s political arena, to reach the highest office. From losing both seats in his first election in 1997 despite his cricketer-hero status, to the Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf emerging the single largest party in 2018, Imran has a come a long way, with his politics too undergoing several makeovers over these two decades. His critics say he is confused, his supporters that it only shows he is open-minded.
But despite all the contradictions, from the beginning, one impression about the 65-year-old Imran has stayed: that he is a progeny of Pakistan’s powerful establishment, created to cut the two big players, Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party, and Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N).
This election, probably Pakistan’s most polarising in recent history, has entrenched that reputation — the military’s open animosity towards Sharif, and some of its moves in the last five years signalled its preference for Imran.

Imran’s politics is a mix of middle-class aspiration for a “clean, transparent and accountable government”, Islamic egalitarianism, justice for all, liberal economics, and religious and social conservatism. He supports the blasphemy law, is against repealing Pakistan’s Second Amendment that declares Ahmadiyya to be non-Muslim; he flirts with the Taliban, and in this election, canvassed support from the extremist Tehreek e-Labbaik Pakistan, and the virulently anti-Shia offshoot of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, Ahle Wal Suunah Jamat.

With his politics offering something for everyone, his following is a mix of the cosmopolitan middle-class in urban Pakistan, who fear the progress of religious conservatism in their lives, and the religious conservatives who believe Pakistan is getting too westernised.

Pakistan’s population of about 200 million is overwhelmingly young and aspirational. There were 46 million voters between the ages of 18 and 35. Almost 17 million of them came of age after the end of Pervez Musharraf’s tenure and have no experience of military rule. They have known only civilian governments of the PPP and PML(N), both perceived as corrupt. In this time, the Army recovered fully from the erosion of public faith in it that had set in midway during Musharraf’s rule, and presented itself as the only institution Pakistanis could count on.

Accountability, thus, has been Imran’s main theme. In addition, the PTI’s promise of naya Pakistan is achche din plus AAP jhadoo: it includes a Medina-like welfare state in which education and health will get maximum priority, 10 million jobs, five million low-cost homes, and the return of black money that wealthy Pakistanis have stashed abroad.

Some of the promises, such as healthcare and education reform, are based on the PTI’s five-year experience of governance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Its healthcare initiatives in that province have won non-partisan praise. Affordable health has been Imran’s passion since he set up the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Research Hospital, named after his mother.

Expectations of him are high but a fair amount of political uncertainty may make it difficult for him to keep these promises.

India & neighbourhood

Foreign policy and national security are areas in which Pakistani Prime Ministers have found themselves bogged down, not least because of the military’s claim over them. But Imran has given enough indication that he is on the same page as the Army on foreign policy, including for the neighbourhood.

While he has declared himself a votary of peace with neighbours, he says he will not bow to India’s “thaanedaari”. He believes only the Pakistan Army can stand up to India. He called Sharif a coward for not responding militarily to the 2016 “surgical strikes”. He has said Prime Minister Narendra Modi“killed Muslims”in Gujarat. His real test with India will come with how he deals with the groups the Pakistan establishment protects: Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Mohammed, responsible for a proxy war in Kashmir and terrorist acts in other parts of India.

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