As Pakistan goes to polls today, all eyes are on Imran Khan. The former cricketer is widely expected to triumph, not least because he is seen to be backed by the powerful military establishment. His rise clearly marks a crucial chapter in the country’s tortured democratic experiment. But how exactly will it affect Pakistan and, indeed, its relationship with India? spoke with Sharat Sabharwal, a former Indian high commissioner in Islamabad, to get a sense of what this election holds for the subcontinent. Excerpts:

In the run-up to this election, there has been much speculation about the Pakistan army’s role in engineering an outcome favourable to the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. Is that indeed the case? And how did Khan, who has had limited success as a politician since launching his party in 1996, become a potential prime minister?
Let’s look at the events of 2011. The Pakistan People’s Party was in power and the next election was two years away. By then it was clear Nawaz Sharif would do well. He was coming up in Punjab, his party’s government there was doing well.

Of course, the army had had problems with Sharif – his uneasy relationship with the army chiefs, his ouster in a coup in 1999, his repeatedly expressing a desire to improve relations with India.

Another thing was happening at the time: in spite of some friction, the People’s Party government and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) were cooperating to see through some significant constitutional amendments such as the devolution of powers to provinces. It was clear to the army that these two parties were not going to cooperate with the military against each other. So, the army was in need of a third player who would be willing to cooperate with them.

You will recall that both the People’s Party and the Muslim League had cooperated with the army in the past. Starting in 1988, two governments of Benazir Bhutto and two of Nawaz Sharif were ousted because these parties cooperated with the army against each other.

But the situation had changed by 2011. And, as I said, the army was looking for a new player. Imran Khan sort of just came along.

He had founded his party in 1996. But in the elections since, he had won only one seat. Then, suddenly, he was addressing very large rallies, and the rumour mill had it that the spy agency ISI was mobilising those crowds. Politicians who had worked with the army in the past gravitated towards him in large numbers and, overnight, from someone who had failed to make a mark he became a challenger and a player of some standing in Pakistani politics. Of course, he did not deliver in 2013. This time, such attempts have been more brazen and the expectation is that he would deliver, at least that’s what those who have promoted him feel.

Sharat Sabharwal with Nawaz Sharif. Photo courtesy

Pre-poll surveys have given Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf the lead. If he were to form the government, what would it mean for India?
Whatever happens, the result will not be a true reflection of what the people might have done had it been a free and fair electoral battle. Yes, the opinion polls say he is a little ahead but we have to see what really happens.

To my mind, whatever the result, it is not going to make much of a difference to us. It will be more of the same for Pakistan and since it will be more of the same for them, it will be more of the same for us.

Let me explain why I say so. The army was controlling foreign and security policies and whatever else they wished to control. This was true under Sharif and it will be true under whoever becomes prime minister now.

It is quite clear that Sharif was resisting the army, he was trying to wrest control of foreign policy, of security policy. He did make such attempts; whoever becomes the prime minister now may not do that.

The reality is the army has a stranglehold on Pakistan’s polity and its foreign and security policies.

My sense is the army’s first preference would be a hung assembly, in which they can cobble up the majority of their own choice and make someone of their own choice, preferably a non-entity, the prime minister.

The second choice would, of course, be Imran Khan. How he moves forward remains to be seen.

Does the mainstreaming of extremist groups in this election have security implications for India? There’s Hafeez Saeed’s political party contesting the election and fundamentalist candidates have also been fielded by Ahmed Ludhianvi’s Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan.
It is a very dangerous trend. Having said that, the election in Pakistan will make little material difference to us. I will be looking for two things in the result the day after.

One, the kind of votes these people get. We have the likes of Hafeez Saeed, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, an extremist Barelvi party, and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, which has been killing the Shias. Traditionally, these kind of parties have not done well in Pakistan. If they get an appreciable number of seats this time they will have some say in the formation of the government, and that will be a step backward for Pakistan. That would be bad news for Pakistan and bad news for us, for this region.

The other thing I will be watching out for is how many votes the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) gets. Let us not forget that Sharif has practised an openly anti-army politics of late. He had always been trying to redress the civil-military imbalance, and wrest control from the army of foreign affairs and the security policy. But in recent times, given how he has been treated, Sharif has been far more open in speaking against the army. He has spoken even about the army subverting the Mumbai attacks trial.

If he still manages to get a significant share of the vote, it will, at the very least, be an indication that his voters do not consider this kind of politics a reason not to vote for him – even if you do not consider it an endorsement of his anti-army politics.

There is a sizeable constituency in Pakistan that challenges the army’s narrative and Nawaz Sharif has become their voice.