Could this be Asia’s century?

A recurring theme at the recent India Today Conclave was the need for meaningful change if this is to beAsia’s century.

The concept of change is what Imran Khan has been thundering acrossPakistan, even though he abstained from attending the conclave owing to Salman Rushdie’s presence.

But change is already in the air inPakistan, not just in terms of key postings but also in civil-military ties, the lie of the political landscape and the mood in general.

Aside from the strain in relations betweenPakistanand theUnited States, the atmosphere is much more relaxed, terrorism is down, and civil society is more upbeat even as the Army and the ISI appear more circumspect.

Indiais no longerPakistan’s number one enemy, and trade rather thanKashmiris now the main issue between the two neighbours. There are even indications of a consensus inPakistanon the need for better relations withIndia.

Speaking recently inLondon, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khan, averred that trade would make for a more normal neighbourhood. Quoting Mani Shankar Aiyar, she added that dialogue withIndianeeded to be uninterrupted and uninterruptible.

This has also been a signal from the military over the last six months at least that General Kayani is not averse to engagement withIndia. The frayed ties with theUShave no doubt contributed to the civilian government being allowed a more formal ownership of foreign policy by the Army.

Clearly a mutuality of interest has emerged between President Zardari and General Kayani, who retires in less than two years and may be looking to secure his future. InPakistan, the Army’s ‘izzat’ (honour) suffered a huge setback in 2011.

TheUSraid to take out Osama Bin Laden from a safe house in Abbotabad was a watershed for the military, perceived as its biggest humiliation since 1971. It left them with a lot of explaining to do, not least of all to parliament.

Not surprisingly, the PPP-led government, which had looked like caving in when the Memogate scandal broke, seems to be back in business, while Zardari, the ‘accidental President’, has survived longer than anyone imagined.

But as Pakistanis know, there are very few politicians as wily as Asif Ali Zardari. So the Ides of March have come and gone but the PPP-led government, despite all the pressure of an interventionist judiciary, has been looking firmly entrenched since the Senate elections.

The political field inPakistanis as wide open as one could imagine inIndiain 2014. It could be a more badly hung Parliament than at present when elections are held, more likely this October than next year as scheduled.

Conventionally, Nawaz Sharif should have been the obvious choice to replace Zardari and co. But he appears far too reticent and wavering, still not recovered from the shock of 1999.

The Mehran scandal is not likely to have done his image any good either. No doubt the PML(N) still retains much of its feudal base inPunjabbut Shahbaz Sharif, who runs the state, has shown no inclination or stomach to take on either the fundamentalists or the Army.

Nor is Nawaz much of a favourite with the Americans. The PPP still has a sizeable following among the rural poor, which comprise the vast majority inPakistan.

That the Bhutto legacy was still alive and kicking was evident at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh when the PPP organised a rally on December 27 last year. Whether the PPP can buck anti-incumbency is another matter.

In the circumstances, Imran Khan could be the dark horse, the big player holding the balance of power. Salman Rushdie is probably right when he says that Khan is depending on the mullahs and the Army to make him Prime Minister.

Arithmetically, Khan may appear to have no chance; mullahs have generally been a liability in elections inPakistan. But no politician in the country’s history has beaten the Establishment.

This time the establishment is with Imran Khan. So too is the groundswell of popular support. His jalsa inLahoreon October 30, 2011 attracted a crowd of almost 200,000.

Whether this following will translate into votes, only time will tell; but combined with the public meetings inKarachiandPeshawar, it would indicate that Imran Khan has arrived as a politician. Politicians from various parties have flocked to him in droves.

General Musharraf would have been a natural ally of Khan but in his absence the king’s party, PML(Q), cobbled together by him, has joined hands with Khan.

Imran Khan has also exploited the anti-US sentiment well. And in an age of ‘loot and let loot’, he is the nearestPakistanhas to an Anna Hazare.

Whether or not he can end corruption in 90 days as he claims, he is still a beacon of hope for the country’s youth. Until a few months back, analysts used to say it is the poll after the next one that will be Imran’s.

Now calculations appear to have turned on their head because this is clearly Imran’s moment. Some people criticise him for hobnobbing with the Taliban and other radical outfits, but ifPakistan’s ties withAmericaimprove, theUSmay also veer round to GHQ’s view that Imran Khan is a better option for Prime Minister than the heavier weights but more discredited politicians ofPakistan.

Unfortunately, we don’t need to believe what we don’t like. Very often opinion makers from the West refer toPakistanas a failed state, the latest to do so being Fareed Zakaria. But this is little solace to us because we would prefer a stable, independent and democraticPakistan.Indiahas good reason to proceed cautiously withPakistan.

The Indian Prime Minister is right that he needs some ‘solid reason’ to visitPakistan. The ball is now in Prime Minister Gilani’s court. Despite President Zardari recent visit toNew Delhi, there is little hope of the peace process moving forward unless Dr Manmohan Singh goes toPakistan.

 AS Dulat