May 11, this year, will see two important initiatives.

One, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Iran and the other a mammoth protest rally by PTI in Islamabad against the alleged rigging of elections last year.

On May 7, the Prime Minister addressed Pakistani ambassadors serving in the Middle East and Gulf countries. He focused on the need for “rebalancing” foreign policy with a view to achieving the objective of integration with the rest of the world to strengthen the economy observing that “foreign policy has virtually become economic policy”. He referred to “special relationships with fraternal countries in the Gulf and the Middle East.” Recently there has been a lot of high level contact between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as well as Bahrain and Pakistan. The Saudi Arabian crown prince himself came to Islamabad and there has been much speculation about the 1.5 billion dollars “gifted” by Riadh. It is generally considered that Pakistan has been influenced to toe the line taken by Saudi Arabia in Syria. Although there have been firm denials on the part of the government, lingering doubts still remain.   

Keeping this is in mind, Nawaz, during his address at the foreign office, made a point of emphasizing that Pakistan was keen to forge closer ties with all countries in the region. He said, “our efforts to develop bilateral ties with one country are not, and will not be, at the expense of another as Pakistan remains ready to take two steps to greet a hand extended in friendship.” Regarding speculation about a change of policy towards Syria, he clarified that Pakistan would continue the policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. Rightly, appropriate preparatory steps have been taken, in advance, by the Pakistan government to ensure that the Prime Minister’s visit to Iran yields good results. Sartaj Aziz visited Tehran a few days ago and met the Iranian president to prepare the ground for forthcoming meetings and to forge the agenda for the two leaders. He was followed by a meeting of the interior ministers of the two countries in Islamabad where they discussed the recent incidents of terrorist activities across the border, and agreed to install a hotline between the Frontier Corps in Balochistan and the Iranian border force. A hotline between directors of military operations is also envisaged to be set up.

Heading a large delegation representing various leading segments of society, the Prime Minister is expected not only to sort out differences between the two countries but also to explore avenues of economic cooperation with a view to laying the foundation of sustained ties between two Muslim neighbours. A major issue will be the fate of the Iranian gas pipeline project. Apart from the threat of American sanctions, there are questions about high gas prices and the oppressive penalty for not completing the project in time. Another important matter for discussion will be various dimensions of the end-game in Afghanistan and how the divergent interests of the two countries with particular reference to the Afghan Taliban, would be redressed after the exit of the American and Nato forces. Further, if a consensus for various reasons is not arrived at, narrowing the differences in the larger interest of Afghanistan and peace in the region will be discussed.

The sectarian question relating to support for Shia and Sunni groups in Pakistan too, will possibly figure in the talks. Pakistan has to have a clear policy regarding extremist groups which to a large extent are financially sustained from the outside. Here too, the government will have to tread carefully as competing interests are involved, going back many decades. 

Now, a word about Imran Khan’s upcoming “tsunamic” rally in Islamabad. He certainly has a genuine grievance as his complaint against rigging has not so far been attended to seriously. Primarily it was for the electoral tribunals to consider PTI’s petitions against electoral irregularities. The tribunals’ failure to settle the issues have provided justification to the aggrieved political party to raise the matter publicly. The Election Commission has also to share the blame for not ensuring that legitimate complaints are taken care of speedily. The Supreme Court was of the view that the cases had to be first filed before the tribunals by the aggrieved candidates (the matter has now been taken up by the Supreme Court).

Imran has certainly gone a little too far by directly involving the Former Chief Justice of Pakistan and a leading TV channel of the country. The PPP, and of course PML-N are unhappy with the way he has turned the issue into a tempestuous public outcry.  They are prepared to set up a parliamentary committee to have the matter taken up and a way-out found to address the PTI’s complaints.

It is unfortunate that the country has been jolted by one crisis after another, ever since the new government assumed power last June. First, the Musharraf trial which sparked differences between the military and government. This was followed by the attempted killing of Hamid Mir and trading of charges between Geo and the ISI. Here too, the government got sucked in. To add confusion to the commotion, in both these cases electronic channels displayed considerable irresponsibility. Hopefully, this indulgence in excessive and inappropriate behaviour will be remedied by the drastic reform of Pemra which has been functioning unsatisfactorily.

This account of a brewing, tumultuous situation will be incomplete if mention is not made of our Canadian “Sheikh-ul-Islam” who is poised to deliver his historic address to a mammoth meeting scheduled to be held in Rawalpindi via telephone, also on May 11. (Pakistan enjoys the dubious distinction of having the benefit of two “foreign” Pakistani leaders residing abroad, directing and controlling their political parties and frequently inflicting eloquence on huge crowds of their loyal followers.) While Imran Khan has every right to protest and pursue electoral grievances publicly, I am sure he fully realizes that there is an imperative need for preserving the present phase of the democratic process and that he should not be party to the kicking up of the possibility of yet another round of non-elected rulers.  It is vital in the large interests of the country, that sensible and patriotic leaders like Imran Khan exercise restraint and resist being carried away a little too far while airing legitimate and well-founded grievances.

With so many pressing problems and daunting challenges, internal and external, facing the nation, this dear land of ours can ill afford more turbulence and instability.

    The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.