A look at the Imran Khan versus army contest

ByHindustan Times
May 18, 2023 11:29 AM IST

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

Every television anchor’s repertoire of questions focusses around one that is key to Pakistan’s future. And that is, who will win – Imran or the army. At any other time, the answer to that would be obvious. The army has after all, ruled Pakistan directly or indirectly almost since its inception, controlling everything from foreign policy to the economy. And no politician has yet got away with challenging its might. That may be set to change. Not just due to Imran Khan, but to prevailing circumstances including a broken economy, a severe climate crisis, and social unrest. Under this unsettling situation, It’s worth evaluating just who has what, to go beyond the hype that is all too evident around both parties and evaluate a future trajectory.

Policemen escort Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan as he arrives at the high court in Islamabad. (AFP)
Policemen escort Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan as he arrives at the high court in Islamabad. (AFP)

The most apparent advantage of Imran Khan at present seems to be his popularity, given the huge crowds that attend his jalsas, and unleashed mayhem after his arrest. But hold hard. Even as Khan was holding forth to similar massive crowds in 2014, a Pew Research survey found that 64% of Pakistanis favoured Nawaz Sharif over Imran Khan, with the latter’s popularity slipping 17%. So, street crowds may not necessarily mean popularity. At present, however, a Gallup poll gave him a solid 61% rate. Popularity as everyone knows, is a feisty creature. As the costs of looting and burning running into millions come out in public, the mood may change imperceptibly. The army’s popularity on the other hand has taken a beating, with unprecedented name-calling on social media and protests not just by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), but also by oppressed groups in Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Gilgit Baltistan. Never before has an army chief – including the present Gen Asim Munir – had to face such ignominy. The military’s cracking down on protestors under the Pakistan Army Act is hardly going to add to its reputation. In terms of relative popularity, Imran wins hands down, in the immediate future. One year down the road, its anybody’s guess. It depends how much the establishment can use the media against him to frame corruption charges.

A closer observation dispels the prevailing notion that Imran Khan was responsible for the tanking of the economy. Experts are pointing out the Pakistan Economic Survey 2021-22 had actually tabulated a significant improvement in the economy under Khan growing at 5.97% against a target of 4.8%, with policies aimed at saving lives and livelihoods. The International Monetary Fund report of 2021, praises his government for a ‘reform agenda in key areas, including on consolidating central bank autonomy, reforming corporate taxation, bolstering management of state-owned enterprises, and improving cost recovery and regulation in the power sector’ as well as large expansion of social safety nets. It also worth noting that Khan remains popular in KP because of a strong governance record, and the rapid overhauling of infrastructure – though with about a billion in loans. Khan is accused of worsening a Chinese ‘debt trap’, but he also tried to diversify investment from countries like Saudi Arabia to reduce dependence on Beijing, besides stressing job creation and agriculture, rather than just infrastructure. The army, on the other hand, has a demonstrated talent in using insider access to ensure profits in the 50 commercial entities it owns as well as monopolies in certain areas. It also ensures that irrespective of the cash crunch, its elite institutions remain. For instance, the courts orders to the navy for instance, to close down a posh sailing club on the Rawal lake has yet to be carried out. With army chiefs regularly going to 'friendly countries' for loans, the armed forced as an institution can hardly skip blame for the present economic mess, even while it continues to enjoy its expensive privileges. The civilian government has the onus to govern, but the army has no accountability in this, or anything else. In this, it’s advantage Imran Khan.

Imran’s image as “Mr Clean’ has yet to be dented despite more than a hundred cases against him. Yet during his government, the corruption index soared, even as severe repression against more than a dozen journalists including respected figures like Najam Sethi. Reliable reports observed “a dramatic escalation of coercion… resulting in murders, legal cases, assaults, abductions, detentions and threats”. Political freedom also took a toss, as Khan also used the National Accountability to the maximum against opposition figures. The army’s reputation is unsavoury in the extreme. Not only did they assist Khan by launching a highly publicised 'Panamagate' scandal against Sharif which in the end was never proved, they connived at every arrest and detention that is cited above. The whole has since backfired, in fact helping Imran to project himself as the only honest politician available. Add to this the reports of direct corruption, as of General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s billions where his family members acquire assets close to PKR 12 bn. Then was Lt General (retd) Asim Bajwa and his pizza chain in the United States (US) – which was never declared - and the Credit Suisse scandal which exposed several politicians and generals including ex-ISI chief General Akhtar Rahman. The outcome? Advantage Khan again. The public believes him, and trashes the daily charges against Khan that is being trotted out by the reigning coalition and the army.

But then there is reality. In terms of raw power, the army appears to win hands down. Its troops at present are deployed in all provinces, in what seems to be a near martial law-like situation. The government has cleared trials of those who took part in the riots under the Army Act indicating scant regard for international or domestic opinion. On the one hand, are the persistent rumours of a split in the army on the Imran Khan issue. That powerful ex-servicemen groups are supporting Khan is now public. That is a weakness indeed, but the army as an institution will prevail regardless of such hiccups. Imran Khan’s raw power lies in his ability to draw crowds on a ‘just war’ platform, where his charges against the army – including painting Gen Bajwa as a US stooge – are believed. Apart from this is the strong backing of the judiciary, which to some extent may also be jibbing at the establishments’ attempts to clip its powers for suo moto proceedings. To all this is the downside. For all his ability to be a crowd-puller, he can’t endlessly agitate. At some point, he has to make it to the top. Party workers need patronage, not just catchy slogans. For that, he has to win elections. That’s no walkover as of now. And most likely, according to his own allegations, he could be killed or imprisoned indefinitely. There is as yet nothing to show any reduction in the power of the army chief, though his stature would certainly have eroded both within the force and outside it. Even if there is an insider coup, the reality is that the army’s slogan could be lifted from Alfred Tennyson’s much-loved poem: ‘Men may come and men may go, but I go on forever’. That’s it. Unless, something worse happens, like a splintering of the country, which at present seems unlikely, that’s the bottom line. So, the future may be a bruised and battered army, in charge of a state that periodically falls by the wayside and remains a danger as it leans on outside powers, who have their own agendas. That last is the danger that India has to live with.

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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