SMOKERS’ CORNER: KHAN AND THE GENERALS

Published May 12, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In May 2023, a recorded phone call — allegedly between the mother-in-law of the former Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Atta Bandial, and the wife of a lawyer-member of Imran Khan’s populist Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) — was ‘leaked’ on social media.

In the call, the two ladies can be heard criticising the coalition government made up of the parties that had ousted Khan’s regime in April 2022 through an act of parliament. 

At one point in the leaked conversation, the mother-in-law laments, “Yeh kambakht martial law bhi tau nahin lagaatay! [These cursed people don’t even impose martial law!]” By ‘kambakht’, she meant the military establishment (ME). 

The conversation was surreal on many levels. Khan had been the ‘blue-eyed boy’ of the ME, until he had a falling out with his ‘makers’. From 2011 till he was elected as prime minister in 2018, the ME had successfully shaped Khan’s political rise in a highly coordinated manner. His ‘popularity’ was first established within the rank and file of the military. Then, some TV journalists were brought on board, followed by the induction of some vital members of the judiciary. 

This troika — the ME, the electronic media and the judiciary — was complimented by the trained social media wing of Khan’s PTI to proliferate narratives pitched against the two older mainstream parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The two were deeply demonised as being ‘corrupt’. 

After his ouster, Imran Khan was convinced that the establishment had ‘betrayed’ him, and the May 9-10 protests last year were an attempt to rally support amongst ‘pro-Khan’ factions in the military. However, any military intervention was drastically overestimated by his supporters

A constituency that had initially been built by the former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf, and which mostly consisted of middle-class and upper-middle-class Pakistanis, was navigated by the ME and the media in such a manner that it eventually fell in Khan’s lap. This became a quadrilateral elite, comprising the ME, the media, the judiciary and the middle classes. 

After Khan’s ouster in April 2022, he began to publicly lambast the ME, accusing it of ‘betraying’ him. But the truth is, due to the many abject failures of Khan’s government, the ME had begun to gradually distance itself from him months before he was ousted. 

In February 2022, Bandial became the CJP. He was cut from the same cloth that at least four of his predecessors were. These included Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and, even more so, Justice Saqib Nasir, Justice Asif Khosa and Justice Gulzar Ahmad. Anti-PTI parties often accused them of being overtly pro-Khan. Justice Bandial was accused of having a ‘soft corner’ for Khan. Truth is, Bandial wasn’t very good at hiding this soft corner. 

Now the question is, during the time of the aforementioned phone call leak, when Khan was holding angry rallies and condemning the ME, why was Bandial’s mother-in-law yearning for a military takeover? Equally surreal was the presence of banners in some pro-Khan rallies with “We Want Martial Law” written on them. 

Also, why did the PTI — by planning last year’s violent riots on May 9 and 10, in which PTI supporters and members attacked military property — believe that this would cause a split in the armed forces and bring ‘pro-Khan’ generals to power?

Many academics who study coups are of the view that, if the conditions allow, street protests can be followed by a coup d’etat. According to the political scientist Scott A Tyson, protests are often a ‘signal’ to the elites to intervene.

The elites in this context are the military and political elites. These may also include the higher judiciary and business elites. A regime facing the protests, too, is made up of political elites. Once the anti-regime elites decide that the protests are clearly signalling for an intervention, this is then communicated to the state elites. The media too plays a role in this. Its reporting of the protests may strengthen the signal and galvanise the military to intervene. 

The mother-in-law’s ‘kambakht’ lament was expressing a desperate yearning within sections of economic elites for military intervention. This nature of signalling was loud and clear on numerous WhatsApp groups when Khan was holding rallies against his ouster. The signal became even more obvious when the “We Want Martial Law” banners began to appear at the rallies. Some media personnel also started enhancing the signal to the ME. 

But by late 2022, the ME’s top leadership had changed. A general who had earlier exited the project that was set up to facilitate Khan’s rise became the new army chief. Yet, PTI believed that many remnants of the project were still active within the military. 

I believe that with the judiciary still in facilitation mode, the notion of causing a split within the military to replace the new military chief with ‘pro-Khan’ generals was the brainwave of some retired military men who were well-versed in the theories of post-protest coups. 

Once the signal to intervene in Khan’s post-ouster rallies was ignored by the new ME, a violent uprising was conceived that was to target the new ME. The ‘uprising’ was enacted to evoke the ‘concerns’ of the supposed pro-Khan generals. The signal now was: eject the new army chief and intervene (on the side of Khan) to avoid an all-out civil war. This ‘plan’ could not have been formulated without the input of some retired officers. Many of them had been quite vocal in their support for Khan. 

The violent May 9 and 10 protests were orchestrated by a political elite (PTI) against another set of elites (the coalition government) to signal the need for an intervention to judicial and military elites. But, according to Tyson, whether or not a coup will succeed is generally not certain to elites. This uncertainty is caused by the uncertainty regarding the actions of other elites. The ‘other elite’, in the context of the May 9 and 10 riots, was the military.

An intervention by ‘pro-Khan’ officers was drastically overestimated by the planners and the plan collapsed. The coalition government was able to withstand the assault.

The new military chief began to swiftly oust the remaining ‘pro-Khan’ elements from the military — even though those remaining in the judiciary are now trying to avoid suffering a similar fate through a pushback in the name of the ‘independence of the judiciary.’ This, too, is quite surreal.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 12th, 2024

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