There is little need for deep analysis as to why Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, commonly known as PTI, has emerged victorious in the Pakistan National Assembly elections. The leader of the main political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and his heir-apparent were in jail at the time of the elections, and the party had been discredited in the past five years through a systematic campaign of violence and protest. In other words, the pitch was carefully prepared to favour Imran’s bowling.

The result of the elections may not be entirely fair, but it would be wrong to say that they don’t reflect the will of the Pakistani people. If indeed the results are rigged, they show that the riggers have a certain sophistication in:

  1. Ensuring that Imran Khan’s party is short of a majority (and will not get too big for its boots) 
  2. Allowing Nawaz Sharif’s party to win a significant number of seats in its Punjab stronghold to enable it to remain a coherent entity, regardless of who eventually goes on to form a government there.
  3. Ensuring that not one out of the 460 odd jihadist candidates won.
  4. Showing the jihadi extremists their place by allowing them to contest polls and then crash to utter defeat.

The results in the five provinces and the performance of the four principal parties, including Pakistan People’s Party and Baloch Action Party, make this a perfect outcome that ensures no one party develops any conceit about its standing.

Indian expectations

The election does not give us any reason to believe that we will witness some change in Pakistan’s foreign policy hereafter. The Pakistan Army is not about to give up its right to shape Pakistan’s foreign policy just because someone it favoured has come to power. The country has been at that place before and the Army usually found the civilians wanting, so this time around, there will probably not even be a pretence of providing any autonomy to the man in power in Islamabad. And this time around, not only is the man an untested politician, but the office of the prime minister has been so badly battered that it retains little credibility.

This broadly answers whether Imran Khan’s prime ministership will make any difference to the troubled India-Pakistan relationship. Even so, there are expectations. He is one of the few Pakistanis who knows India and Indians well, having travelled here in his cricketing days, and after as a regular in various media conclaves and events.

In his speech claiming victory on Thursday, Imran declared “I really want to fix our ties, you take one step forward, we will take two.” He also spoke of the Kashmir dispute and the need to talk about Kashmir where “we are still on square one.”

There was not a word or understanding that it was Pakistan that needed to take step one, before anyone could contemplate taking steps two and three. For India the watershed has been the Mumbai attack of 2008, whose perpetrators run freely in Pakistan and were even allowed to participate in the elections.

Civilians vs military leaders

In the post-Zia period, India has been more comfortable in dealing with civilian leaders – Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and later Asif Ali Zardari – who were leaders of major political parties, not cardboard prime ministers like Shahid Khaqan Abbasi or Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and Yousaf Raza Gilani. But we all know that the key near-breakthrough in relations between the two countries came at a time when Pervez Musharraf, the commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army was also the president. There is a message there too obvious to miss.

Yet, India does not have the option of waiting infinitely for the emergence of a Pakistan government that actually controls all the levers of power in the country. Pakistan may have had a successful election, but its chronic problems will not retreat on that account. New Delhi cannot afford to turn its back on Pakistan. Responsible politics would require India to continue a policy of engagement supplemented by back-channel links. Further, India needs to build a coalition of partners who can participate in the effort to bring Pakistan around towards becoming what could be called a “normal” state.

Domestic challenges

Actually, if his hands are tied in foreign and security policy, Imran Khan should not worry. Pakistan has a huge domestic agenda that demands his attention. Indeed, if he can fix some of the issues, it may create the conditions in which the Army may be compelled to loosen its vice-like grip on the polity. There are issues relating to the economy, jobs, infrastructure, water stress, healthcare and so on.

As he takes office, Imran Khan’s first priority will be to tackle the yawning current account deficit and it is estimated that Pakistan needs some $ 10 billion to tackle the immediate problem. Though he has criticised China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Imran Khan is unlikely to cross the Chinese on the issue. Beijing’s political and economic importance has become even more salient for Pakistan following its tensions with the United States, which has frozen $1.3 billion military aid because of Pakistan’s half-hearted approach to combatting terrorism. Then, there is the entire agenda of de-radicalising the polity which has now reached a dangerous point.

The fact that the jihadists fared badly in the polls can be a useful means of containing them because the extremist mullahs often assert their claims in the name of the people. But this would be possible only if the political centre of the country, which has been fractured by the elections, can come together and, more importantly, get the support of the Army. Only then can the push back work.

Observers point to Imran Khan’s incorruptibility and the positive record of his party in governing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which returned the favour by returning the Tehreek-e-Insaf to the provincial government leadership once again this time. Imran Khan’s 22-year odyssey as a politician suggests that it is driven by deep personal beliefs and convictions. Those are the things that he will need in the coming days, if he is indeed to make a difference. This time around, he may find that the pitch is not entirely in his favour.

Dr Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi