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Pakistan’s topsy turvy politics reveals military’s true dominance

With Imran Khan’s roller coaster success more chaos has unfolded in Pakistan. The Pakistan Army, which has been instrumental in maintaining political stability, may have the upper hand once again

August 18, 2022 / 03:55 PM IST
Imran Khan (third from left) during the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23. (AFP/Getty Images/File)

Imran Khan (third from left) during the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23. (AFP/Getty Images/File)

On the eve of the by-elections to 20 provincial assembly seats in Punjab, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) seemed set to serve out the balance of the term of the National Assembly and stay in power till August 2023. But on July 17 2022, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) routed the PMLN in the polls. Suddenly, the pendulum of politics swung in Imran’s favour. The future of the 12-party coalition government in Islamabad seemed extremely bleak. Political obituaries of the PMLN-led coalition were being written and political pundits were predicting general elections by around October.

Two weeks after the by-elections, on August 2, the political pendulum swung once again towards the PMLN. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) released its long-awaited verdict on the finances of the PTI. The order of the ECP in what is popularly known as the ‘Foreign Funding’ case was a scathing indictment of not only the PTI but also of Khan. In one fell swoop, Khan’s USP of being honest and clean in financial matters was blown to smithereens. But more than his reputation, it is the implications of this ECP order on his political future—if the law and precedents on misdeclaration of assets, accounts, and finances are followed in letter and spirit, Khan could be disqualified for life, much like his bête noire, Nawaz Sharif.

With the noose tightening around Khan’s neck, the political scene has changed dramatically. He is on the defensive and his political adversaries are smelling blood and sharpening their knives to go for the kill. The pressure that Imran was trying to build for an early general election has been released. The ruling coalition has launched an all-out counter offensive against Khan and his party. The coalition now looks set to stay in office until August next year. Even if elections are held prematurely, it will not be because Imran wants the election but because the coalition thinks the time is opportune to go to the hustings.

Imran Khan vs Pakistan Army

Khan overplayed his hand, unable to deal with being out manoeuvred by the opposition which ousted him from office. He went on a warpath, manufacturing a ‘conspiracy’ of regime change and pretending to be a victim of a sinister plot hatched by the Americans with local collaborators. Khan started firing a barrage of verbal volleys against the military establishment which he accused of being part of the conspiracy by not siding with him.

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Objecting to the army’s decision to remain ‘neutral’ in the political slugfest, Khan said only animals are neutral. He then ratcheted up the rhetoric and accused the military top brass of playing a role akin to that of Mir Jafar and Mir Sadiq, two figures of hate among Muslims of the sub-continent. A massive social media campaign was also launched against the army and the new government. But despite such provocation, the army kept a studied silence and didn’t retaliate.

The army’s silence emboldened Imran to step further out of the crease. He was quite enthused by the impressive public turnouts in his rallies. But what made him go ballistic was the remarkable and resounding victory in the by-elections. This he saw as a public endorsement and a political validation of his ‘anti-establishment’ posture, his ‘anti-imperialist’ rants, and his combative, even abusive, politics. Khan seemed to have convinced himself that he had finally shaken off the shackles of slavery imposed on him by the military establishment that had played such a pivotal part in his political rise. While Khan doubled down on his fiery rhetoric, there was deafening silence and a disquieting lack of response from the army. This lent credence to rumours of divisions within the army. There was talk of factionalism in the top brass between those who backed Khan and those who saw him as a threat to the security and stability of Pakistan.

The PTI was openly saying that it had the support of the rank and file of the army, and even of the families of the generals who were opposed to PTI.  Meanwhile, there were a growing number of voices in the PMLN casting doubt on the neutrality of the army. Suspicions were being voiced about the army short-changing the PMLN by making it the sacrificial lamb that would do all the dirty work of attempting to rescue the economy and drawing public ire in the process, which would finally pave the way for Imran’s return to power. Some top PMLN members wanted the party to take a strident anti-establishment stand and reclaim lost political ground.

The Army Strikes Back

With both the big political parties firing salvos at the military establishment, it seemed for a moment that a tectonic shift might be underway in Pakistani politics. The domination of the military was being challenged like never before.

And then the Empire struck back. The long rope given to Imran Khan was yanked after the PTI crossed the Rubicon. Three back-to-back events were instrumental in the military establishment cutting Khan down to size. The first was the trolling of the army by PTI-linked trolls after a helicopter crash in Balochistan in which six soldiers, including the Quetta Corps Commander, died. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) reacted very sharply to this trolling. Even PTI supporters within the army fraternity were incensed at the smear campaign carried out under the direction of the PTI social media team. A couple of days later, there was a reshuffle of Corps Commanders. Khan’s favourite general Faiz Hamid was posted out of Peshawar to Bahawalpur.

This was both a political transfer (Hamid was believed to be going against the army high command and continuing to lend support to Imran Khan) as well as a sign that the army was worried over the leeway given by Hamid to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Immediately, the troll corps of PTI launched an offensive against the transfer. This didn’t go down well with the army because it was tantamount to playing politics inside the army and undermining its cohesion and chain of command.

The final straw came a couple of days later when Khan’s Chief of Staff Shahbaz Gill went on a rant against the army on ARY News, a TV station that was unabashedly working as a media propaganda arm of PTI. Gill instigated the soldiery and the officer corps to mutiny against the GHQ and disobey orders. This was Khan’s and PTI’s Altaf Hussain’s moment. Almost immediately, ARY TV was taken off the air. The next day Gill was arrested and roughed up. He is believed to have confessed that he was instructed by Khan to push the envelope in the campaign to pressure the army leadership. A crackdown was launched against the troll army of PTI and some journalists of ARY who are alleged to be framing the anti-army narrative of Khan. A top executive of ARY was arrested. One leading anchor escaped to Dubai, others went into hiding fearing arrest. There are now reports that ARY’s security clearance has been withdrawn and the channel is likely to be shut down.

Meanwhile, the PTI started to smell the coffee. Top leaders are trying to distance themselves from the controversy and swearing their love, affection and loyalty to the Army. Even Imran Khan seems to have understood that he is on a very, very slippery slope.

End of Imran?

Unless there is another twist in the tale, which can never be ruled out in Pakistan, it appears that it is curtains for Imran Khan, at least for now. The chances of him being disqualified are very high. Of course, the disqualification will not happen immediately. ‘Due process’ will be followed, which means a few months of lawyering and dragging Khan through the courts. Many of his supporters will desert him. Enormous pressure will be brought to bear to emasculate the PTI. But the long and short of it all is that the military establishment is back in the saddle. Any hope that the military’s role in politics will be circumscribed by the political parties is dead and gone. The ruling coalition is gleeful that it is back in favour of the military establishment. It is more than willing to do the bidding of the army chief and the military brass.

The thing is that the army has honed its ability to keep a sword dangling over the head of every single politician to keep them compliant and obsequious. They have enough material to end the career of any politician. The army no longer needs to use its firepower power to get rid of an inconvenient politician when it can use the legal and judicial process to do the same. If Nawaz Sharif was ousted by a judicial sleight of hand (pronounced dishonest because of non-declaration of a salary which was never withdrawn), then Khan can be disqualified in the ‘foreign funding’ case. Shahbaz Sharif and his son have a money laundering case pending against them. Asif Ali Zardari has a fake accounts case against him. Maryam Nawaz is already convicted, though her sentence has been suspended. But the ubiquitous sword is hanging over her head as well. Even the second rung of the leadership of all the big parties faces a similar situation.

But while the army has re-established itself as the top dog in Pakistani politics, the polity remains in a stable disequilibrium. This is bound to get disturbed in not too distant future because there are no rules in this game. Going forward, one or more players will do something that will lead to another crisis. The trigger could be related to financial and economic policies, it could be security related, it could be a clash of personalities, institutions or just interests of some players. But for now, Khan’s innings are over and his political career is in serious trouble because his chances of getting ‘selected’ appear to be very dim.

(This article first appeared in the ORF)

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
first published: Aug 18, 2022 03:46 pm
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