Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan is in a hospital after surviving an assassination attempt; his furious diehard supporters are protesting on the roads seeking revenge.
The government ministers, led by his traditional political arch rivals — the Sharifs — and the military generals have been caught in a quagmire, unsure of how to deal with the chaotic political situation. The assassination bid against Khan is incurring a heavy political cost.
By naming Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and a senior security official of the ISI as the perpetrators behind his murder conspiracy, Imran has declared his warpath. With such accusations, Imran seeks to further weaken the government and drag the establishment directly onto the political battlefield.
Not very long ago, Imran and his government enjoyed unprecedented support from the establishment, unlike civilian governments of the past.
The establishment of Imran Khan
During the 90s, Pakistan was on a rollercoaster ride with successive governments of Sharif and Benazir Bhutto toppled, in popular perception, at the behest of the establishment. The decade culminated in Gen Musharraf’s bloodless coup against Nawaz Sharif in 1999. At the time, it seemed the rule of either the Sharifs or the Bhuttos would never be acceptable to the establishment again. They lived in exile, while Musharraf became the darling of the West for making Pakistan a frontline state in the war on terror.
The winds changed when Musharraf imposed a national emergency by suspending the Constitution and his popularity nosedived. Facing a mass movement for the restoration of the judiciary, Musharraf was compelled to negotiate the return of his political rivals.
The General met with Benazir Bhutto in a palatial residence in the Gulf state, with the meeting said to be brokered by his own close aide, the then chief of ISI, Gen Pervez Ashfaq Kyani, who later succeeded him as COAS. Kyani had previously served Benazir as her military secretary when she was prime minister. Subsequently, the, Saudis pressured the military ruler to accept Nawaz Sharif, who was in exile in Saudi Arabia after the coup.
Benazir’s tragic assassination paved the way for Musharraf’s ouster and Bhutto’s party coming into power. During those days, rumours were rife that the establishment believed Pakistan needed a third force to counter the Sharifs’ PML-N and Bhuttos’ PPP. Imran, who was then struggling to find political momentum, thus became an alternative choice for the establishment.
He was nurtured as a political poster boy, tapping into his acclaimed fame in the cricketing world and his heroic image among the younger generation after winning the 1992 World Cup. He gained support among many Pakistanis for setting up a cancer hospital in Lahore, which earned him the image of a social reformist.
Agent of change
Imran’s political persona blossomed after he received the establishment’s support. His party emerged as a major political force in the 2013 polls, attracting a large number of youngsters and many who were disillusioned by other politicians.
In the years that followed, Imran probably hit a jackpot as his own bitter political rival, the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif chose Gen Bajwa as the new army chief, superseding other more senior generals.
Gen Bajwa, himself a cricket lover, was already in awe of Imran’s cricketing accomplishments. The two bonded over a common vision, with Gen Bajwa reportedly inspired by Imran’s passion for elimination of corruption and in turn, Khan sharing Gen Bajwa’s views on what was required for the country’s stability. The ‘one page’ mantra echoed across the public domain.
In keeping with Pakistan’s generic and consistent political turbulence, things did not remain the same for long. The partnership was dented, the trust turned into mistrust and promises were broken.
Differences surfaced when Gen Bajwa wanted to transfer Lt Gen Faiz Hameed — one of the main proponents of the ‘one page’ narrative — from the post of ISI chief to the head of the Peshawar corps. Khan not only opposed the move, but delayed the process, saying it was his discretion to appoint a new ISI chief. What was interesting was that Imran had not intervened on the two previous occasions when the ISI chief was appointed in his own tenure. So Khan’s stance was merely seen as wanting Lt Gen Faiz around to fulfil his ‘political whims’ and to make him the next army chief.
The alliance of opposition parties, PDM, found the space they had been looking for to increase the wedge between the establishment and Imran’s regime. They feared that if Imran were to appoint Lt Gen Faiz as the next army chief, he would secure election outcomes in the PTI’s favour and Imran’s rule be secured for the next 10 years. Thus came about the efforts to oust Khan through a vote of no confidence.
The falling out
Subsequently, Imran launched a countrywide protest campaign against his ouster. He built a narrative of an alleged conspiracy of regime change, though the National Security Council found no evidence of such a conspiracy. Imran’s peddled theory helped him make inroads into various layers of society. His protest meetings swelled manifold and his party defeated political rivals in the majority of seats in by-polls.
The former premier has recently gained massive support, but in the process, his aggressive posturing has probably burnt bridges with the establishment. Be it the killing of journalist Arshad Sharif, the recent by-elections or the alleged custodial torture of his close aide, Shahbaz Gill, Khan targeted elements within the establishment.
Imran’s accusations intensified to the point that in an unprecedented move, the ISI chief appeared before the press along with the DG ISPR to deny the accusations and termed them false. The ISI chief, while responding to a question, said there is a consensus among ranks and file and future leaders of the institution that it shouldn’t get involved in politics. Some critics called the presser counterproductive, but others saw it as an official disassociation with Imran.
When Imran didn’t find space for his main demands, he chose to march towards Islamabad, only weeks ahead of the army chief’s appointment. Imran claims only the new government with a fresh mandate should be allowed to appoint the new army chief.
Imran idealises Erdogan and believes he could rule like him after securing a two-third majority in the next polls. He feels powerful vis-à-vis the establishment, now drawing political legitimacy from massive public support and silencing his detractors’ claims that he was a puppet with no autonomous power or support. He is likely to become more aggressive in his protest campaign and so far, it is clear to see that his confrontational approach is working for his support base.
The attack on Imran’s life has sparked anger among his diehard supporters who are already protesting on the roads, triggering fears of widespread violence. Amid the unrest, Khan appeared in a wheelchair from the hospital, his legs in casts, urging supporters to continue to protest until the three, including PM Shehbaz Sharif, and the senior security official whom he accused, step down.
The wounded Imran wants to convey a message: either face the fury of protests or hold early polls and meet his previously stated demand of putting the appointment of the military chief on hold. If Khan cannot appoint the new army chief in accordance to his liking, he feels that at the very least, he can make the government cautious about who it selects or make the appointment controversial.
Imran’s demands will likely not be acceptable to either the government or to the establishment. The government doesn’t want to hold early elections because Imran has gained considerable popularity since his ouster. And for the current guardians of the establishment, it’s akin to surrendering the state before Imran who proved unpredictable, and they feel he betrayed them and is trying to taint the image of the institution.
Imran, the government, and the establishment seem to have taken extreme positions, leaving no room for rapprochement for the time being, plunging Pakistan into political chaos.