Hours after former Pakistani premier Imran Khan was ousted through a successful Vote of No-Confidence in the National Assembly of Pakistan, millions of Pakistanis inside and outside the country came out in his support. Their slogans centered on the need for Pakistan to tread its own path and resist strings pulled by foreign elements. Khan’s burgeoning support base, for the past week, has responded vociferously to his calls to stand up for the country’s sovereignty, honor, and independence. He and the country’s National Security Committee (NSC) agree that a cable from the U.S. was tantamount to blatant interference in the affairs of Pakistan. All this has given Khan an opportunity to link his untimely, sudden ouster to a U.S.-initiated regime change operation. While the extent of the U.S. role and the magnitude or veracity of a conspiracy cannot be determined sans detailed investigations, Khan has accumulated all that it takes to build upon his credentials as someone who was committed to taking an independent approach to foreign policy. In the massive, charged rallies that he has addressed since leaving office, Khan has doubled down on shedding light on how and why he, as the country’s Premier, did not budge an inch on its interests while taking foreign policy decisions. His attracting huge crowds, with a view to letting them defend democracy and sovereignty is instructive, to say the least. Enthused participants in protests and processions agree that the country must exercise freedom rather than become subservient in its foreign relations. That foreign policy has become a rallying force is something that will have implications for foreign policy discourse in the country going forward.
First, the new, enfeebled coalition government will have its work cut out to counter Khan’s foreign policy narrative. Khan, whose popularity has all but peaked, argues that only a foreign policy that protects the interests of Pakistan should be pursued. In other words, he asserts that Pakistan can and should not take decisions which are repugnant to its interests. During his tenure, he gave similar arguments in support of his choices to visit Russia and refrained from providing combat succor to the United States. The new government will find it difficult to counter his narrative as it gains traction. Taking positions to the contrary may, for the first time in the country’s electoral history, be politically damaging. Therefore, the current setup will have to be careful in its foreign policy messaging and signaling. If anything, while being in government, coalition parties can ill-afford to directly call out the fundamentals of Khan’s approach towards foreign policy. Doing so would be risky and give credence to Khan’s claims that his opponents are non-committal when it comes to taking independent foreign policy decisions. Hence, it is reasonable to argue that the new government must not come across as one bent on reversing everything that Khan stood for during his tenure. For instance, a complete change of tack on India and Kashmir could, in effect, damage the election campaign of major coalition parties.
Second, Khan does not have the option of toning down or backtracking from his foreign policy utterances. Though he will need to convince audiences that he isn’t anti-West, his followers will not take a liking to his trying to take back his words on key foreign policy issues. For instance, if and when he comes into power again, he would be expected to take the highly-explosive cable issue to its logical conclusion. Absent that, Khan’s edifice would unravel, much to his and the country’s detriment. Also, relatively savvy and aware voters would be in a better position to scrutinize how he deals with the West if he gets a second shot at ruling Pakistan. However, the most difficult thing for Khan to navigate will be his own maximalist stand on foreign policy. While Khan, to his credit, stuck to his guns in the realm of foreign policy, his space to maneuver independently was curtailed due to the country’s economic woes. Thus, as he presents himself as the champion of an independent foreign policy for Pakistan, he must take into account Pakistan’s economic landscape. For Pakistan to follow an independent, self-reliant foreign policy, it has to strengthen its economic profile. Besides, it is critical to dissociate firmness from populist rhetoric. The challenge for an in-power Khan would be to convince the West that he is desirous of maintaining strong ties with it. Therefore, Khan will need to reorient his messaging should he come back to lead Pakistan.
So, at a time when Pakistan is in the midst of a vexing, dangerous political quagmire, its foreign policy has suddenly became one of the most vital political talking points. Though public involvement in foreign policy is a healthy sign, it puts the onus on politicians to juggle their political interests and those of the country to the latter’s advantage. Imran Khan’s ballooning popularity has brought to the fore the salience of foreign policy for domestic audiences. The challenge for Khan and his opponents going forward is to package their narratives in a manner which maximizes the prospect of their electoral successes without harming the country’s core strategic interests. For now, the disquisitions surrounding Pakistan’s foreign policy cannot, however, remain oblivious to Khan’s forceful pitch on it.