In May this year, Imran Khan’s party — the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) decided to hold a dharna (sit-in) outside the Karachi port to block NATO supplies to Afghanistan on the grounds that Pakistan should stop supporting the US in the region. The dharna was a huge success by PTI standards as 7,000 persons turned up.
What people did not realise is that most of those in attendance were from different religious parties — including the right-wing Sunni Tehreek which earlier this year supported the killing of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti.
The positive in this is that, although no NATO supply tankers were stopped or delayed, with the dharna staged successfully in terms of numbers of people attending, Imran Khan’s political future seems to have brightened.
Post al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, things are looking bright for the former cricketer and playboy.
His anti-American rhetoric coupled with his ambiguous stand on the Taliban has won him the support of the ultra-right, while at the same time, his unending tirade against corruption continues to gain him followers from the middle and lower income groups.
What is interesting, say political observers, is that as relations between the army and mainstream political parties deteriorate, Khan appears have become more acceptable to the men in uniform.
“Imran Khan is talking in a language that the army wants to hear. He is talking about the good Taliban and the bad Taliban. He is critical of the United States and is taking a stand on the drone attacks. He is attacking the main political parties. And he is flirting with the religious parties,” says Rana Sanaullah, a key figure in the PML-N party.
Political parties are increasingly becoming critical of the armed forces — that too in public discourse. PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has asked the army chief and the ISI head to step down as they have “no moral authority to head the armed forces after the Bin Laden and Mehran base debacle.” Sharif is not alone in his criticism. There is a rising demand for more accountability of the military and for political overview of the armed forces.
President Asif Ali Zardari seems to be playing both sides. He accuses Sharif of inciting dissent in the armed forces and trying to promote extremist elements within the army. But he has successfully pushed for greater powers for the prime minister and supremacy of parliament.
Last month, finance minister Dr Hafeez Shaikh promised more details of military spending in the coming budget and let out that it is “government policy to ensure there are more answers being given by the GHQ.” Till now, the army leadership has brushed aside civilian interference in its affairs.
Setting the mood in what can be seen as a policy shift, ISI chief General Ahmed Shuja Pasha gave a closed door briefing to parliament on the Abbottabad incident.
This was followed by a fiery question and answer session in which Pasha exchanged hot words with opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. In many ways, the army seems on the defensive. On the other hand — as seen in the Saleem Shahzad killing — old habits die hard. But there are some who still defend the actions of the men in khaki. One of them is Imran Khan.
When asked, Khan suggested that the Shahzad killing may have been an attempt to tarnish “the good name of the military.” He called it a conspiracy at a time when all other political leaders demanded a commission of inquiry be constituted with a Supreme Court judge as its head.
Journalist Shamimur Rehman says that the recent popularity of Khan’s dharna suggests that he is being backed in his political ambitions by a third force. “This is not new in Pakistan. Ironically, the army’s biggest critic, Sharif, also enjoyed military patronage in his early political career,” adds Rehman.
Some wonder what the next stage for Khan may be. The army’s relations with political parties continue to deteriorate. Zardari is trying to build bridges only because army backing is needed for him to continue to stay in power. There are complications here as well. “This is a party that the army traditionally distrusts because of its secular credentials,” says Kamran Shafi, a political analyst and former military officer.
As a grand opposition alliance comes into being this month, there are expectations that the political temperature in the country will rise. On the one hand will be the ruling party and its reluctant ally, the PML-Q party, which owes its existence to General Musharraf. On the other would be the PML-N and the MQM, two major political forces which represent the urban centres in Punjab and Sindh provinces.
As has been the case in the past, there is a likely scenario that the army would come to the rescue of the government if the situation becomes critical. Such a situation was seen in 2009 when a long march by the PML-N almost shut down Punjab province and forced Zardari to reinstate the chief justice. That deal was brokered at the prodding of the army chief, say insiders.
Such history may be repeated. Analysts say that Imran Khan is now being seen as the “reserve candidate” of the army high command. Acceptable to both right and left, Khan may be installed as a compromise prime minister if political forces are unable to reach a compromise. Ruling party figures say that such a possibility would be “unacceptable” to them.
“The thought seems ludicrous,” says information minister Firdous Ashiq Awan. However, stranger things have happened in Pakistan’s political history. And with corruption becoming a national topic of debate, such a proposal seems to be gaining ground in many areas of Pakistan.