By Salman Bashir
Pakistan is about to change to a new administration led by Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has been swept into power by a popular vote in the general elections on July 25. Clearing the air, the foreign election observer groups from the EU and the Commonwealth have declared the polls to be free and fair. This should take the wind out of the sails of discredited politicians who had hoped to agitate and level charges of rigging.
Throughout the election season, the Western media packaged and sold multiple times the thesis of the military-Imran nexus. For want of any originality, the local stalwarts and pseudo-commentators tried to cause confusion at home. The people have decisively rejected all hypotheses of Pakistan drifting into anarchy and deviating from the enlightened democratic mainstream.
The religious parties fared badly. It is not a rejection of religion but a vote against the unjust status quo pedaled for too long by the feudal, business and religious elite. It hopefully demolishes the evident notion of democracy as a means of elite capture of state resources.
ISLAMABAD: PTI Chief Imran Khan talking to media-persons in Islamabad.
So what was it that the people voted for? They were enthralled by the notions of dignity, respect and self-worth, which were central to Imran’s politics and formed the core of his philosophy and outlook. He promised that each and every Pakistani would be respected and that the Green Passport, reflecting Pakistan’s national color, would be held in high esteem. This appeal to dignity and respect resonated across the country.
This, indeed, will also form the core principle of the new government’s foreign policy. Imran, in his first address to the nation, after the elections, outlined the contours of his foreign policy. The emphasis is on immediate neighbors — China, Afghanistan, Iran and India. Special mention was made of the unique ties with Saudi Arabia and the importance of a mutually beneficial relationship with the United States.
With China, relations will be deepened and the CPEC initiative will go forward. This is not new but an expression of the deeply held sentiments of respect and trust for the great Chinese nation, which has been a true friend.
On Afghanistan, Imran said that peace in Afghanistan was essential for peace in Pakistan. Significantly, he spoke of the days to come when tranquil and open borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan will contribute and reinforce the progress and prosperity of the two brotherly peoples. The PTI government will put the full weight of Pakistan behind a just political settlement in Afghanistan which conforms to the aspirations of the Afghan people as a whole.
It is to be hoped that the US will take its blinkers off and work with Pakistan for durable peace and development in Afghanistan. Time is just right for putting it all together. The Washington, DC bureaucracies should heed their president’s instincts on Afghanistan and wrap up their Afghanistan venture with a victory for peace and democracy in the country. In Imran they would find a convinced and eager partner.
The US Afghanistan and South Asia strategies come up for a review in August. Besides its other flaws, the US has under this policy decided to keep the pressure on Pakistan. This was also evident in the less-than-enthusiastic statement acknowledging the election results.
India has maintained a harsh and hostile posture. The Indian media has been a sharp critic of Imran Khan and is now harping on the theme that his election spells doom for India. There are some reasonable voices, such as Mani Shankar Aiyar on Pakistan, but they are drowned in shrill, implacable Indian hostility. Yet Imran has said that he will take two steps towards India, if India takes one. A clear message of settling the Kashmir dispute through talks and trade normalization was sent.
There is a narrow window of opportunity starting very soon to the end of the year when India gets immersed in its own election. It should be seized for the good of peace in the region as a whole.
Saudi Arabia will continue to figure high in Pakistan’s priorities. It is notable that Saudi Arabia was the first to congratulate Imran Khan. Huge opportunities exist for strengthening the very special bonds between the two countries.
Pakistan’s economy can be revamped in the short-to-medium term. The economic constraints resulting from mismanagement can be overcome. Here, too, Imran Khan will have a competent Foreign Office team to pursue economic development as the strategic priority No. 1. He can expect the full support of other institutions, particularly the Pakistan military, in working a robust “‘Pakistan first” foreign policy which is geared towards peace and development.
(Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as the foreign secretary of Pakistan and Ambassador to China, India and Denmark. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb)