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Swing On The Silk Route

Imran Khan has to fix a faltering economy. Drawing India within the ambit of the CPEC might be a good start.

Swing On The Silk Route
Imran Khan takes oath as MP with Shah Mehmood Qureshi
Photograph by PTI
Swing On The Silk Route

A spectacularly moth-eaten sup­er­­­structure can inspire only the doughtiest of architects tas­ked to fix it. A looming economic crisis that may force Pakistan to arrive, cap in hand, at the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) door to beg for yet another bailout is hardly the ideal atmosphere for a new prime minister to take charge of a nation’s aff­airs. In a nation that is already beset with a complex variety of problems, the job at hand for the new leader bec­omes more onerous.

Yet, when icon-turned-politician Imran Khan takes over as prime minister on August 18, the people of Pakistan and beyond would like to witness the beginning of a promised journey—a transformation of the world’s second largest Islamic nation into a model welfare state.

Though he comes from an elite Pashtun family from Punjab’s capital, Lahore, Imran has not trodden the usual political ground of his contemporaries. He is completely self-made. He arrived at the crease with characteristic style—as a cricketing icon in a country where the game is followed with fervid passion, he has always drawn large crowds and hogged media attention. However, his entry into politics was regarded with scepticism by Pakistani political observers. Though he started dabbling in politics nearly 20 years ago, with the launch of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), few Pakistanis took him seriously, barring the enthusiastic brigade of disillusioned urban youths eager for change.

Read Also: Imran Khan - A Cricketer Who Struggled For 22 Years To Become Pakistan's PM

But his doggedness over the years brought the PTI to a state where it was seen as a key player in the tribal areas and, ultimately, the main opposition to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League(N) both in Punjab and at the national level—a turnaround unthinkable even a few years back. When the Panama Paper scandal exploded in full view, with Nawaz and his PML(N) facing the full brunt of the judiciary, forcing the incumbent prime minister’s resignation, Imran and his PTI took merciless advantage of the situation.

His emergence as leader of the single largest party in last month’s elections had been marred by accusations of electoral malpractices from his political oppone­nts and independent observers. But Pak­istani commentators point out that it was usual for results to be followed by acc­­usations of rigging and booth capturing.

Photograph by PTI

Nawaz Sharif might be beaten back for now, but the PML(N) along with the PPP can be a tough opposition for the PTI in the National Assembly.

However, few would deny that apart from a growing middle-class urban youth hankering after change in the political cli­m­­ate, Imran’s biggest support came from the final arbiter of Pakistani polity—the omnipotent military establishment. Nawaz, a three-time PM who was nurtu­red by the army (and dethroned by it twice), had attained a level of confidence where he started espousing his own fore­ign and India policies—strict no-go areas for civilian governments fenced off by the military. It was a risky venture; it certainly proved to be a misjudgement. The Pan­ama Papers’ revelations of corruption arrived as a handy tool for the country’s judiciary and investigating agencies with which to flog Nawaz and his children.

Now that Nawaz is hounded out—at least for the time being, though the PML(N) under his brother Shahbaz, with help from Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s PPP can still be a formidable opposition in the National Assembly—it is Imran on whom Pakistan’s focus is trained. As he negotiates hurdle after intractable hurdle arra­nged on the path of Pakistan’s immediate future, his every step will be scrutinised.

Undoubtedly, the new leadership’s top priority would be to repair the economy. At first though, it will have to take stock of the damage to it and the proximity to economic dysfunction and collapse. Equally without doubt, any prognosis would be grim.

In the past 30 years, Pakistan has sought a bailout from the IMF 22 times to tide over various economic crises. Thus, though there is an ongoing debate whether to fall back on this time-tested tradition, many suggest that the new dispensation should also try other options.

One reason why Pakistan is thinking of looking for options beyond the IMF could well be the current fraught state of Pakistan’s relations with the United States—a country that has a major say in the IMF. Some Pakistani policymakers worry that the American administration might be inclined to use the pre­sent economic crisis to chastise Pakistan for its perceived non-cooperation on the fight against terrorism, thu­mbing its nose at the US leadership.

But apart from the possible strict conditions the US might force on the IMF for Pakistan, many Pakistani expe­rts feel that the chronic economic atrophy the country faces is partly bec­ause of the Fund’s recommendations.

Apart from seeking investment from non-resident Pakistanis, ‘all-weather ally’ China is, predictably, the one country that Imran Khan’s government could turn to. China has already made multi-­billion dollars worth of investment on its showpiece project—the China-Pakistan Eco­nomic Corridor (CPEC). Though many countries in the region have also shown interest in this project—part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI)—an important link to make this mega project viable and investment-friendly is still missing. That, according to Chinese and other experts, is Pakistan’s powerful eastern neighbour. India had been opposing the CPEC because of its current hostile relations with its main beneficiary, Pakistan, and suspicion towards its master originator, China. Furthermore, the CPEC passes through parts of Pakistan-occ­upied Kashmir that Delhi claims as an integral part of the country.

An obvious area that could well give a kickstart to both the CPEC in areas it has not yet reached and, more importantly, to the stalled engagement between India and Pakistan, is cooperation on trade and investment between the two neighbours through Punjab. The Indian border state and its corresponding, all-important Pakistani counterpart (its biggest province and repository of most of its populace and economic heft), could well be the focus of the proposed trade cooperation.

Indian media reports have highlighted the recent visit of the Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, to Punjab and his journey to other parts of the state, inc­luding the Wagah-Attari border post.

Experts feel that though the proposal for starting India-Pakistan trade for a thaw in frozen relations is not new, a Chinese show of interest in using it as a tool to trigger engagement on the one hand and expand the CPEC and BRI’s reach to bring India within its fold on the other, might just work.

In India, many observers find encouragement in the cordial phone conver­sation between Narendra Modi and Imran Khan recently. The fact that the Indian PM decided to call Imran at a time when his majority in the National Assembly was far from certain, much before his formal induction as Pak­istan’s new prime minister, has been read by many as evincing a keenness to put bilateral ties on track.

The Indian high commissioner in Islamabad Ajay Bisaria recently met Imran and exchanged views on two pressing issues—predictably, on terrorism and Kashmir. The SAARC Summit, to be hosted by Pakistan later this year, was also part of the discussion.

In an India slowly stirring into election mode, whether the window of opportunity that is opening in Pak­­i­stan—with some Chinese nudging—could be seen a risk worth taking or not would depend on how confident PM Modi feels. He can reach out to a sworn adversary and turn it into a political/diplomatic achievement—a feather in his cap—or he can shelve it for a post-election perusal, after assessing Pakistan’s new helmsman. Facing Imran Khan with the new ball can be challenging, but also a rewarding experience.

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