Distantly Close | Lessons for Imran Khan
Pakistan's former PM's popularity can be self-defeating if he fails to recognise the limits of escalation in politics of agitation
Imran Khan is hugely popular. But he’s out of power. Shahbaz Sharif and his allies are a pale shadow of their radiant past. But they’re in power. That’s Pakistan for you.
In the middle of the perennially warring political forces stands the army that has always moved politicos like pawns on the chess board. They did that with Shahbaz’s brother Nawaz Sharif till he, their adopted child, turned rebellious and refused to take dictation from the establishment’s then civilian front, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. That was way back in the early 1990s.
The cricketing-hero-turned-politician has obviously learnt little from his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) bête noire. By agreeing to be Rawalpindi’s prop, he got on the 'same page as the fauj’ to showcase his simulated 2018 regime as a unique experiment in Pakistan’s history. Its novelty was in that it coalesced the two parallel power centres: one periodically elected (civilian regime) and the other permanently constant (the army).
The unequal, grossly expedient marriage turned sour in a little over three years. Many factors contributed to the breakup, the foremost among them being Khan’s charge that the Army was led by its nose by the United States to eject him from power as punishment for his foreign policy tilt towards Moscow and China. What made matters worse was his near-total estrangement from the then Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, his one-time benefactor who had a hand in his rise as prime minister.
The result: Khan’s Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) lost the April 2022 no-trust vote in the National Assembly. The puppeteer that historically ran rings around elected leaders such as Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto was at play again.
As is his wont, Khan sought to weather the storm by consigning parliamentary rules to the dustbin, using his hand-picked Presidency to recommend --- on his advice --- the assembly’s dissolution for early polls. The move backfired in the Supreme Court which directed the National Assembly speaker to conduct the no-trust vote. The PTI eventually lost in absentia because Khan did not turn up in the House to face the vote.
Tenacious to the extent of being arrogant, the PTI chief has been on the streets since the loss of power, going all guns booming after the PML-N-led Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and by implication the latter’s backer, the Rawalpindi-based General Headquarters popular by the acronym of GHQ. Since an attempt on his life (in which he was shot in the leg) during a PTI protest march in Punjab’s Wazirabad, he has sharply targeted the Army, especially Major General Faisal Naseer in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), for conspiring to have him killed.
Questioning official accounts that termed the assassination bid a “lone wolf” attempt, Khan insists there were not one but three-four shooters. He also says the Army officer he holds responsible for the attack, stalled a police probe that could’ve ‘exposed’ the unpalatable truth of his involvement.
Khan repeated in fact the allegations in a video released before his arrest. What perhaps was the last straw that broke the camel’s back was his ominous forecast of the civil-military establishment ranged against him, meeting the fate of Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa family. In Colombo, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had had to flee the country in the face of unprecedented public outrage amid an economic crisis identical to the one facing Pakistan.
That threat coupled with his call to the people to hit the streets, sort of preordained Khan’s arrest in one of the many graft cases under probe by the national accountability bureau (NAB) that, in the past, had been the nemesis of many a former prime minister, including the Sharif brothers, and their alliance partner Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The latter served as the country’s President in the aftermath of his wife Benazir’s December 2007 assassination at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh during Gen Pervez Musharraf’s military rule.
The civil-military establishment should be worried by the widespread anger on the streets across Pakistan in response to Khan’s arrest and the manner in which it was carried out in the premises of the Islamabad High Court, where he was appearing in a different case. But much would depend on the force, longevity and direction of the building hysteria. If they continue, incidents such as invasion of the GHQ and the Lahore Corps Commander’s residence won’t help the PTI. They’d place the Army firmly on the side of the ruling coalition, regardless of the latter’s lack of popularity in an economy where people queue up for flour. That is so also because the Army cannot contemplate a coup in a situation where Pakistan needs financial support from democracies abroad and international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank.
Khan has sought early polls, but the ruling coalition is resolute in not bringing them forward from the scheduled October 2023 deadline. So much so that the PDM has circumvented the Supreme Court’s orders for provincial elections in Punjab (where PTI dissolved the House) through legislative excesses of superseding the court’s diktat.
If history is any guide, renegade mass leaders, regardless of the party to which they belonged, have never been trusted by the army’s seat of power in Rawalpindi. A testimony to that is the slain Benazir and Nawaz Sharif, who’s alive but is in self-exile in London.
The PTI of Khan has grown bigger than both the PML-N and PPP in recent years. The comparatively younger party can legitimately claim to be a truly Pan-Pakistan entity with a support base across the four provinces and the Pak-occupied-Kashmir (PoK). Ironical though it may sound, its mass appeal is also its biggest liability. That’s largely so because of Khan’s troubled history with the sitting army chief, Gen Asim Munir whom he had gotten removed as the ISI chief to make way for his favourite, Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed in 2019. That was when he was on the same page as the GHQ of Gen Bajwa.
Add to that America’s deep distrust of Khan, who always asked for the US’s exit from the region on the ground that its presence was at the root of the Af-Pak crisis that simmers to date. In relative terms, Washington is comfortable dealing with Shahbaz, the pragmatist seeking to fix, to the extent possible, the economic crisis hurting the people, before the general elections later this year. He also hasn’t yet done anything to sour ties with the GHQ.
In the obtaining flux, wiser counsel and imperatives of reconciliation have to be understood by all stakeholders, especially Khan whose bravado might move the people but not his fate-lines. He can’t be fighting on multiple fronts and yet win the battle. He has to yield an inch to score a mile later. If he continues to be cussed and not recognise the limits of escalation in politics of agitation, his common enemies might gang up to have him disqualified from contesting elections in the criminal cases he faces. A living example of that is his arch enemy, Nawaz Sharif.
HT’s veteran political editor, Vinod Sharma, brings together his four-decade-long experience of closely tracking Indian politics, his intimate knowledge of the actors who dominate the political theatre, and his keen eye which can juxtapose the past and the present in his weekly column, Distantly Close
The views expressed are personal