New Delhi: Narendra Modi came to power on an anti-corruption plank but the Rafale deal has raised questions that his government is unable to convincingly fend. Across the western border in Pakistan, Imran Khan is basing his prime ministry on a similar anti-graft platform verging on populism. He has set impossible deadlines for himself to bring back black capital stashed in foreign tax havens. Even if the deadlines are missed, he will still almost succeed in advertising himself as cleaner than the Nawaz Sharief and Bhutto clans. But would it secure and perpetuate his power? Doubtful in the extreme.

Narendra Modi does not have to worry about the army. If the electorate turns against him and even more decisively than against A. B. Vajpayee, he is finished. He will know pretty soon where he stands although you and I would have to await the counting of votes. Imran Khan’s position is far trickier. He could be as populistic as he desires but it will not take him out of the clutches of the Pakistan army. There couldn’t have been a bigger populist than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Where did he end up?

To be sure, it is possible that Imran Khan has small ambitions: Meaning thereby that he is perfectly willing to remain within his turf provided the army limits to its own. In operational terms, this would work out to Imran fixing domestic social and economic ills to the extent budgeted funds permit while the army handles external relations with the Major Powers, India and Afghanistan. Even if Imran curtails his ambitions to domestic matters, he will run afoul of the army sooner or later on funds which the army will largely appropriate, relations with fundamentalist parties, and equations with terrorist elements. If Imran is serious to establish domestic control, he would have to challenge the army in short time, and he knows better than anyone the consequences of doing so.

But if Imran has large ambitions which include making peace with India, he will meet the fate of Nawaz Sharief. However popular he is Imran Khan simply cannot thrust aside the army and commence a dialogue with India. To become a full prime minister in other words, he needs to despatch the army to the barracks, which he cannot even conceive of doing in the present circumstances. The tragedy of Pakistan’s politics is that politicians have undercut one another taking the assistance of the Pakistan army. If Imran plans to move against the army, someone from his own party or the opposition will betray him. He would then meet the same fate as Nawaz Sharief or do worse. Imran Khan hardly needs reminding that both Z. A. Bhutto and Benazir met untimely ends.

What about the external powers? Would they be keen to see the Pakistan army in the barracks and Imran Khan gaining full control of the levers of power? During the Cold War the United States was quite amenable to dealing with Pakistan’s military dictators. Democracies were messy for the United States in the early Cold War period. Since the Afghan troubles the United States has dealt directly with the Pakistan army. In Benazir’s time, the US professed an interest in democratic reforms in Pakistan. Under US pressure, she was permitted to campaign in national elections when she was assassinated. The United States has since turned away from Pakistan’s domestic politics to be focussed on Afghanistan without making progress.

Russia is a new player and would have no more bias for the army than for Imran Khan. China presents troublesome possibilities. China and Pakistan have an intimate strategic relationship where elected governments have no role. China’s military nuclear relations with Pakistan are opaque to the highest degree with zero civilian oversight. Now there is the high stakes CPEC in which only the Pakistan army can provide iron-clad guarantees. CPEC has generated corruption on a massive scale in Pakistan which is also true for all the other Belt and Road Initiative projects in other countries. If Imran Khan has the courage of his convictions, he should order a comprehensive probe of CPEC corruption. Will he? It is a test case of how far he can go against graft and whether he can challenge the army’s patronage of CPEC.

Imran Khan will likely not head into such dangerous territory: And least not yet. And if he does desire to optimize his powers by undercutting the army he will need all the external support he can muster. He would have to weave a web against the army and still remain untainted as a Pakistani nationalist. It is a risky venture on which Imran Khan may never embark. In which case his populism will run its course and he will be dragged down to the gutter of Pakistan’s politics like his predecessors. Narendra Modi’s coming and going will not matter for India. In a real sense Imran Khan represents the last chance for Pakistan to redeem itself as a democracy.