Thirteen months after his ouster from power, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested on graft charges.
He was taken into custody on the orders of the infamous National Accountability Bureau (NAB), by the paramilitary Pakistan Rangers, from the Islamabad High Court, where he had appeared in a separate case. Imran Khan has locked horns with his former benefactor the Pakistan army, since he was removed from the office through a vote of no-confidence in April last year.
In a major escalation over the weekend, Imran Khan alleged that the incumbent head of the Inter-services Intelligence’s (ISI’s) “Directorate C”, Major General Faisal Naseer has been plotting his assassination. This drew a stern rebuke from the military’s media wing, which was then joined in the chorus by the ruling coalition leaders as well.
Imran Khan, who had been shot and wounded at a rally last year, however, doubled down on his accusations. On his way to his fateful court appearance, released a video message reiterating that General Naseer had tried to have him killed twice. It was in this backdrop that when Imran Khan’s arrest finally came, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party cadres not just pointed the finger of blame at the army but also staged violent protests against it. While no political party has ever protested directly in front of military installations in Pakistan, the PTI partisans managed to breach a buffer zone of the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi and ransacked the corps commander’s residence in Lahore.
From the citizen videos of the rioting, it appeared that the security might have stepped down to avert a confrontation with the protestors. But the die has been cast.
Take a look as massive protests erupt in Pakistan over the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan: pic.twitter.com/YsjbT8zB93
— Steve Hanke (@steve_hanke) May 9, 2023
Imran Khan had initially cooked up a conspiracy theory blaming the United States for his ouster but the moment the former Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Javed Bajwa retired, he indicted him by name for orchestrating his fall. He has since been ratcheting up his rhetoric against the ex-COAS but has also taken not-so-subtle digs at the incumbent army chief, General Asim Munir for siding with the coalition government that replaced him.
The junta had over the past year shown tremendous restraint vis-à-vis Imran Khan, letting him vent uninterrupted and unscathed. But Imran Khan wasn’t merely blowing hot air. He had felt betrayed by General Bajwa and his coterie in the brass for deciding to wrap up the so-called hybrid regime, of which he was the civilian figurehead, while the army wielded the actual power. The army leadership, for its part, had apparently calculated that rolling back its Imran Khan project would be smooth sailing and bereft of its massive support, he’d fade away or at most be a mere political nuisance.
Imran Khan, however, has honed his populist skills over the years, and launched a relentless campaign to return to power. He deftly used the social and conventional media to portray himself as the victim of army’s machinations and the ruling coalition as a bunch of corrupt traditional politicians who were the ultimate beneficiaries of the brass changing horses midstream.
Incidentally, this mantra of all traditional politicians being corrupt is the brew that the Pakistan army has been selling for years, and in Imran Khan had found its most zealous peddler. But while many sections of society, especially the urban middle and upper classes, imbibed it, the army’s officers and cadres had consumed this poisonous potion the most. It was among this lot that Imran Khan had his sympathizers who did not agree with their top brass abandoning him.
The Pakistan army while always acting in unison, has had its share of traditionalists who were disposed towards a pragmatic tutelary role for their outfit, and adventurists with proclivity for a blatant manipulation of the political process. In addition to such adventurists, individuals among the general staff who had either been sidelined or bypassed in the internal jockeying for the COAS or other appointments, also gravitated towards Imran Khan. He similarly has enjoyed support from sizeable sections of the civil bureaucracy, superior judiciary, media persons, and civil society favorable to the ostensibly anti-corruption narrative. Buoyed by several bye-elections victories within months after his ouster and quitting the National Assembly, Imran Khan has since remained on a dogged offensive against his opponents.
He rightly sensed that the ruling coalition, comprised of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which includes Shehbaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the smaller Baloch and Pashtun nationalist parties, and is supported by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), remains at the helm courtesy the army. But what he has sought is not for the army to stop interfering in politics, but to intervene on his behalf.
Imran Khan’s self-serving campaign has been for his own restoration as the army’s chosen man and for the brass to enable him to hound and destroy his political opponents on unproven allegations of corruption. But when he was unable to pry away the incumbent army chief, Imran Khan upped the ante. His adventurist backers among the junta and the judiciary insulated him from the top brass’ wrath.
Superior judiciary gave Imran Khan reprieve after reprieve and quite literally rewrote the constitution from the bench to enable him to form the provincial government in Punjab. Earlier this year Imran Khan got his partymen to dissolve the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provincial assemblies, in an effort to force the PDM government to dissolve the National Assembly and call country-wide snap polls.
The PDM – with tacit support from the COAS – dragged its feet and a frustrated Imran Khan opted to train his guns on the army. Adding to Imran Khan’s frustration, the caretaker governments in the Punjab and KP dithered to call even the provincial elections, which are now past due.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan went through judicial contortions and ordered the provincial elections in Punjab to be conducted by May 14, only to be stonewalled by the federal government and the army, who refused to provide funds and security for the polls. Presiding over benches consisting of his handpicked judges, the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Atta Bandial tried to take on a defiant executive backed by the rump parliament but had to blink when the latter passed legislation to curtail the CJP’s administrative authority to form benches and take up cases suo motu.
The CJP, widely perceived as partial to Imran Khan, also has seven out of fifteen judges of the current SCP in near-rebellion against his high-handedness and partisanship. Justice Bandial is set to retire in September this year and will be replaced by the present senior puisne judge, Justice Faez Isa against whom Imran Khan’s government had filed corruption charges. Just as the SCP and the parliament were duking it out, General Asim Munir had made an appearance in the National Assembly with some flowery words about the constitution and elected representatives.
The unspoken message, however, was loud and clear: the top brass stood by the coalition government and not the activist judges trying to help Imran Khan get back into power. Incidentally, Imran Khan got General Asim Munir prematurely trotted out from his position as the Director General of the ISI, when the latter is said to have presented him with proof of corruption allegedly linked to his wife. He had also stirred up controversy around General Munir’s appointment as the COAS. The National Assembly completes its term in August and elections would have to be completed within three months thereafter.
September, therefore, is a key month when the constellation of events and individuals in key positions could change against Imran Khan. Recent opinion polls have shown that Imran Khan remains highly popular.
On the other hand, the abject state of Pakistan’s economy has made the PDM, especially its PML-N component’s electoral future precarious. Annual inflation has risen to a whopping 36.4% while the food inflation for combined rural and urban areas is at a record 48.1%. Pakistan’s GDP growth is forecasted to be at an abysmal 0.6% for this year and 2% for 2024. Without an IMF bailout, Pakistan remains at high risk of default.
Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government seems bent on pushing the elections as far out as possible in the hopes that it could somehow salvage the country’s economic and their own political fortunes. But by itself, the PDM could not have warded off the immense pressure that Imran Khan had brought to bear. Support from the army’s top brass has been crucial and may not have been for altruistic reasons. There seems to be a concern within the army leadership that were Imran Khan to return to power, he would try to settle scores with the COAS and others.
Imran Khan, for his part, wanted to capitalise on his popularity and the PDM’s travails, at the earliest. His calculus has been that with pockets of support within the army, judiciary, and general public, he could upstage the top brass and the PDM. In opting for a direct confrontation with the army, Imran Khan has taken the proverbial plunge. The last such face-off was between the then PM Nawaz Sharif and General Pervez Musharraf, which ended up in the latter clamping martial law.
A direct army takeover seems unlikely despite the violent protests so long as they remain limited. A more likely scenario could be clamping an emergency if the agitation gains momentum. If Imran Khan could manage to mobilize the street and tap the presumed support in the army, he could very well stage a comeback.
But that is a big if.
It may be too early to predict but more likely than not the small scale protests seen on day one of his arrest would fizzle out and not snowball into a bona fide protest movement. Lack of mass protest would also force his presumed supporters in the junta to rethink their position and to hold their silence. The superior judiciary, which has historically played second fiddle to the army and condoned its almost every unconstitutional step, would also look at which way the winds are blowing before going out on a limb. But despite that Imran Khan cannot be wished away. There has been talk about convicting him in one of the umpteen legal cases against him and disqualifying him from politics.
Barring the former PM Nawaz Sharif from politics could not keep him out of the political process and won’t stop Imran Khan either. Banning Imran Khan’s PTI party, especially after the violent protests, is said to be under consideration as well. Political parties like the Awami League, Jamat-e-Islami and National Awami Party had been banned in Pakistan but could not be wiped out and either the ban had to be eventually lifted or the parties were reborn with a different name. While Imran Khan’s party and politics only revolve around him, a ban would be most undesirable, counterproductive and add fuel to the fire. Imran Khan, on his part, must realize that politics, unlike sports, is not a zero-sum game. Ditching the parliament and dissing the dialogue are as ineffective as banning political parties and leaders.
What the Pakistan army needs to understand is that decades of direct rule and political engineering has dire consequences for the country’s polity. The virulent constitutional, legal, political and geopolitical mutations that it has introduced over the past 65 years, are not easy to purge, especially when it has actively worked to cripple every institution of the state. The only other time the GHQ was breached was when the jihadists who had spun out of the army’s orbit attacked it. This time the junta’s Imran Khan project has gone incredibly awry. But it doesn’t seem like any lessons were learnt then or will be now.
The way the army orchestrated Imran Khan’s arrest smacks of both hubris and denial. As if looking for plausible deniability, the COAS was conveniently away in Oman, the PM Shehbaz Sharif had extended his stay in London, and the NAB chairman took off for an Umrah pilgrimage, when the arrest was being made. But the responsibility for the current mess rests squarely with all of them, and Imran Khan. At a time when Pakistan is not just at the brink of an economic disaster but faces a multisystem meltdown of state institutions, the civil and military elite have chosen to intensify their power struggle.
Imran Khan’s arrest and his party’s violent response would only make things worse.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.