New Delhi: The question to ask is not what should be expected of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s soon-to-be prime minister. The thing to discover is what the Pakistan army desires for Pakistan, and how Imran fits the agenda. Since armies generally lack intellect, have the most rudimentary understanding of politics, and are ill-equipped to deal with nation-building, it is safe to presume that the Pakistan army has few ground-breaking ideas for Pakistan. It is keenest, however, to preserve and expand its pre-eminence in the national governance structure, and it is here that the answers may reside of what the army wants from Imran Khan.

The Pakistan army is clear that it no longer can afford directly to rule Pakistan. While forecasts are problematic, it is reasonable to suppose that Pakistan will no longer see coups. At the same time, the operating space for civilian governments gets further compressed. Since the army corners a bulk of the national budget, elected governments would be hard-pressed to deliver even decent levels of governance with the limited resources available. For all his charisma and his genuine concerns about healthcare and education, Imran Khan will fight a losing battle with the generals for funds. The Pakistan army has cleared him to be the next prime minister. It has won him the election. Should he ever forget that in his future frustrations and anger of running a cash-strapped government, the Pakistan army will show him the door. It has despatched enough prime ministers prior who were equally charismatic and indeed possessed political influence to a greater degree overseas than Imran can hope for himself in the next few years.

But if previously the Pakistan army was a trifle uncertain about the Pakistan project aside from competition with India, staking claims to Kashmir, the quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan, and so forth, that has changed. The agent of change is China. China has convinced the Pakistan army that the Pakistan segment of China’s flagship OBOR programme, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, will transform the country and economically modernize it. Since China is a dictatorship, the Pakistan army is saved lectures on democracy likely to issue forth from a democratic donor like the United States. Indeed, China savours the Pakistan army’s pre-eminence in Pakistan. It provides the closest to a single window clearance for matters related to CPEC. China has also taken the unprecedented step of permitting close ties between the Pakistan army and the PLA. The PLA thereby gains influence on the Pakistan army while the Pakistan army can share its military anxieties with the PLA, especially weapons’ shortages endemic in armies. It is no accident that the Pakistan army is dependent for a regular flow of arms from China for its frequent confrontations with the Indian army on the Jammu and Kashmir frontier. The Chinese embrace of Pakistan is so fierce that apprehensions of Pakistan’s indebtedness to China from CPEC are rarely publicly articulated in the military circles that matter, and Imran Khan previously had to recant his heretical criticism of CPEC.

Imran Khan has, therefore, virtually two masters going forward: The military, proximately, and China at a remove. He will have to serve their interests to remain in office. That effectively nixes the possibility of rapprochement with India. As Pakistan’s elected head of government, India cannot turn away from Imran. If ground conditions permit resumption of dialogue, Imran Khan has to be engaged. But it is best to have no expectations from him. He has no freedom of manoeuvre and no authority to search for a middle ground for Kashmir. The Pakistan army is in full control of relations with India. Previously, elected heads could deviate from the script and Nawaz Sharief did it all too often. No longer. China is the new player in Pakistan. It has provided a geo-economic vision to Pakistan which lacked one. That it is flawed and will indubitably land Pakistan in a debt trap has few credible articulators. All told, the Pakistan army is unprecedentedly confident of its stewardship of the country with China providing Major Power support and funding. While a coup would ruin the new normal, it also means that the Pakistan army needs a minimum prime minister. Imran Khan fills the bill. He has presence and no political wisdom. Aside from healthcare and education, he has no coherent vision for Pakistan. His “victory” contains too many political contradictions, and it would be beyond his capacity to resolve the tangles and forge ahead. The Pakistan army should not be unhappy with the denouement. It wanted a puppet PM and got him the job. In his gratitude, Imran will be subservient to the army. It will not guarantee longevity.

With a shrug and a sigh, India must prepare to engage another bird of passage and expect nil outcomes. The Pakistan army controls Pakistan as never before in a growing partnership with China. China’s colonization of Pakistan has been inaugurated.