Pakistan has been plunged into yet another crisis with the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday in Islamabad in a heavy-handed manner by the paramilitary Rangers, even as he was preparing to appear at the local High Court. This action could not have taken place but for a tacit nod from the all powerful Pakistani Army and it is significant that the arrest of Khan was carried out by a paramilitary force and not the local police.
The nature of the arrest that well-wishers of the charismatic cricketer-turned-politician describe as “abduction” was ugly and captured on camera and the images beamed worldwide. This has led to widespread protests across Pakistan and latest reports indicate that the private residence of the PM Shehbaz Sharif in Lahore has been set on fire by Imran Khan supporters.
Imran’s Game Up?
Furthermore, in an unprecedented development – the institutional credibility of the Army has been dented with this arrest. Protesters breaking into the GHQ of the Army in Rawalpindi, and residences of senior army commanders being ransacked, is a dramatic first in the history of Pakistan. However, whether this widespread anger against the “men-in-khaki” held up as the guardians of the nation will lead to any significant change in the power matrix of a nation long used to military rule and army primacy is moot.
Imran Khan who has evaded arrest on previous occasions by mobilising his street-power has been charged with corruption by the NAB (National Accountability Bureau) and was defying the beleaguered civilian government and the powerful army with an adroit mix of populism, anti-American nationalism and Islamism.
However, Tuesday’s arrest of Khan that was initially interpreted as a case of brazen high-handedness by the Army has been upheld by the Islamabad High Court which has ruled that all legal formalities were completed by the NAB. This accords Imran Khan's arrest a degree of judicial sanction and it is expected that the matter will now move to the courts – while the current protests (that have led to three deaths) are expected to be brought under control by the security forces. This judicial process and the expected indictment could lead to Imran Khan being disqualified from the forthcoming national elections.
The Protégés Who Fell From Grace
Imran Khan was ousted from his seat as Prime Minister in April 2022 when he lost a no-confidence motion on the floor of the house – though his party, the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) maintains that was done at the behest of then Pak Army chief General Bajwa and the collusion between the two main political parties, the PML(N) and the PPP.
In an ironic but not unfamiliar pattern of power-broking in the politics of Pakistan, Imran Khan – a rank outsider was nurtured by the Army a decade ago to fetter the PML(N) then led by PM Nawaz Sharif. Using street power and incessant protests (ostensibly supported by the Army) Imran Khan was elected as PM in 2018 but the Rawalpindi protégé has now turned to attack his benefactor.
This is not new, for Nawaz Sharif – also a relatively unknown political entity was propped up by the army in the early 1990s to blunt Benazir Bhutto and in keeping with the electoral charade – both these leaders sought the “blessings” of Rawalpindi to wrest power from each other. Tragically, Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif fell afoul of the Army over the years and came to grief in different manner.
Crises On All Fronts
Pakistan is in dire need of deep structural reforms and the current economic and fiscal crisis (the US dollar is now at 285 Pakistan rupees) is very grave. An IMF rescue package is required and the common citizen is reeling under price rise and related shortages. Under these circumstances it is unlikely that the Pak Army would move to centre-stage either by way of a coup or the imposition of martial law.
General Asim Munir who took over as the Pakistani Army chief in November last is the critical interlocutor in the current turbulence and has kept a low profile – despite the recent attacks by Imran Khan on the institutional integrity of the Army. While free and fair elections are often recommended as the desirable democratic path that ought to be followed in Pakistan – in the current scenario, the main political parties and the Army are on the same page in seeking to deny Imran Khan this option. And for the Army, retaining their primacy in the power matrix will be paramount.
The heady mix of emotive populism and nationalism leavened with Islamic fervour that Imran Khan espouses may win the electoral battle but fixing Pakistan will need greater national resolve and institutional integrity than what is now discernible.
Commodore C Uday Bhaskar (Retd.) is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.