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Politician or ISI pawn? Imran Khan bowls a fine line

Like a fast bowler who has found his rhythm, Imran Khan has now hit the sweet spot of Pakistani politics.

His campaign, which has for long focussed primarily on corrupt politicians, has unsurprisingly found enormous resonance, particularly among Pakistan’s hitherto-apolitical youth. In the same way that an anti-corruption crusade waged in India by a “political outsider” has energised people, Imran Khan is riding widespread public disgust with corruption.

With other hot-button issues too, his campaign promises enjoy traction among his audiences. For instance, his pledge to renegotiate – on Pakistan’s terms - the country’s ‘failed marriage’ with the US in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan and Pakistan has proved hugely popular among a people who believe, with an inadequate understanding about Pakistan’s jihadi history, that their country is paying the price for America’s war.

Imran Khan. Reuters

By claiming, however improbably, that he would lord it over the military and the ISI if he became prime minister, Imran Khan also feeds off a lingering yearning among the enfeebled civil society to “take back their country” from the ISI-military establishment, which has justifiably come to be seen as the real and only power centre in Pakistan. Even if such claims are lampooned by cartoonists, and even if he is perceived to enjoy the moral – and perhaps material – backing of the ISI.

The virtual abdication of the throne by president Asif Ali Zardari on grounds of ill health, and the uncertainty that hangs over the democratically elected government, also sets up the right enabling conditions for a change of guard.

For the ISI too, such a change would be welcome. Its intense distrust of the Zardari government was validated by the recent Memogate episode, which revealed that an insecure Zardari was secretly negotiating with the US administration to defang the ISI – and ensure his own political survival. In the lexicon of the ISI, that is high treason: which may account for why Zardari does not relish the prospect of returning to Pakistan.

Even the US has opened a channel of communication with Imran Khan as a hedging strategy , given the recent strains with the Zardari-Geelani government. At a recent meeting with US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, Imran reportedly said that he would be “absolutely comfortable” working with the US on all issues, including the war on terror. Similarly, the ambassador is believed to have expressed satisfaction that the US could do business with Imran.

In other words, for all the bluster about “taming” the ISI-military establishment and “taking on” the US, Imran Khan will likely remain an establishment politician who will play within the larger rules set by the real powers behind the throne.

There is, of course, no certainty that Imran Khan will become prime minister. His party’s hold on the non-urban electorate is infirm. But it’s a fair bet that even if he does find his way to the top job, he’s unlikely to radically alter the power balance either between the civilian government and the military-ISI complex or with the US administration.

For all his charisma, Imran Khan may not be a game-changer in politics in the same way that he was on the cricketing field.

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