Ahead of Pakistan’s elections on Feb 8, anyone reading the political tea leaves would assume that with Imran Khan in jail and the denial of his party symbol the cricket bat, it will be smooth sailing for Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). But TCA Raghavan, former high commissioner to Pakistan, believes the situation is far more nuanced.
Sharif will be slightly uncomfortable because “he is contesting an election in which his principal plank is no longer available. For the past quarter century Nawaz had discovered a secret of Pakistani politics: the latent anti-military sentiment in the country which he was able to capitalise on. In this election, he finds that this anti-military sentiment is being mobilised by Imran Khan. And there is no clear answer as to how he will address this now and in the future.”
Addressing a briefing organised by the Indian Association of Foreign Affairs Correspondents in Delhi, Raghavan while acknowledging the “strong sympathy factor” for Imran Khan, notes that “There has been a role reversal. The pressure that Imran Khan faces today is very similar to what happened to Nawaz Sharif in 2017-18. So, there will be the point made that Imran may be a victim today of the same system of which he was a beneficiary for a long time.”
Imran’s PTI is also driving a slick social media campaign that Sharif and his party seems unable to counter effectively. And while there’s no doubt the army will ensure Nawaz wins, the post-poll scenario is hardly reassuring given that the army will not forgive his anti-military past and will make life difficult for him.
Would either be interested in normalising ties with India? Raghavan’s view is that “Imran Khan had always portrayed himself as a greater friend of India and he used to boast that ‘I know more Indians than Nawaz Sharif does.’ His core constituency is also pro-Indian. This is also true of Nawaz Sharif. The Lahore Faisalabad belt wants more trade with India which is his core constituency.”
Raghavan’s parting shot “I don’t think the military is automatically anti-India what they don’t like is politicians running away with the ball. That’s the real problem, the civil-military problem, not attitudes to India.”