The May 9 sporadic violent attacks against the armed forces installations in Pakistan, mainly in the dominant province of Punjab, which is the backbone of the Army, by the angry youthful followers of deposed prime minister Imran Khan in a frenzied reaction to his humiliating arrest are unprecedented in the history of a ‘garrison state’. Most provocative was the desecration and destruction of the memorials of the valiant heroes and martyrs of various wars with India. Even a politically ‘reluctant’ and moderate high brass of the armed forces could not take such defiance of its power and honour with patience. Quite intriguing was the exceptional patience of the military high command in the face of such a violent provocation by not-so-big but furious crowds to perhaps ostensibly avoid a bloody showdown with the enraged Punjabi youth. A massive crackdown followed that we had seen only during military regimes, which has put the political future of its hand-made illiberal populist leader, former prime minister Imran Khan, in serious jeopardy. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (Movement for Justice), couldn’t take an initial serious jolt and has crumbled like a house of cards. In just a matter of few days, Mr Khan’s second and middle-level leaders have been forced to or under fear left their charismatic leader at the mercy of circumstances. Now, it’s an isolated Imran Khan, who blamed May 9 mayhem on the “agencies”, and his scattered cult followers waiting in hiding for his next call.
It seems that after successfully running a “foreign conspiracy to dislodge him with domestic facilitators” narrative on his ouster through an otherwise constitutional in-house change, he has lost all his wits, after numerous political somersaults, amid a huge patriotic groundswell in favour of the army. The allies in the Shahbaz Sharif Coalition Government, reeling under mass disappointment over its poor performance and hyper stagflation, found a great opportunity to capitalize on Imran Khan’s shenanigan and adventurism of his amateur anarchist cult followers. The double gamble that Imran Khan played, first by wooing the army’s high command to resume its patronage and then threatening it to succumb to his pressure from within and retired military personnel, finally backfired when he crossed the Rubicon.
The May 9 ‘mutiny’ has drawn a red line that will have its own adverse consequences on a fragile democratic transition.
The mass defections in PTI remind one of the similar way innumerable electable politicians in their hoards were ‘persuaded’ to join Mr Khan’s popular bandwagon just before the 2018 elections. In Pakistan’s electoral history, except for the 1970 elections, the electoral rating of a leader or party is not enough. What makes it successful is the green signal of ‘acceptability’ from the GHQ and institutional ‘political engineering’ that ensures ‘positive results’ in elections. However, the elections in 1988, 1990 and 1996 were also rigged against Benazir Bhutto, Chairperson of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and in favour of former prime minister and President of Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) Nawaz Sharif, a protégé of ex-dictator General Ziaul Haq. In a Bhutto-anti-Bhutto political divide, the tussle between these two leaders allowed the military establishment ample room to play one against another. The exceptions were Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman, who became the President of Bangladesh after the defeat of the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, which allowed political space for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to become the most powerful prime minister and make Pakistan a democratic republic under the 1973 Constitution. But, the saga of the brutal murder of the founding father of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman, and the judicial murder of the most popular leader of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tells the tragic story of democracy in these two countries.
Imran Khan’s dramatic rise to and treacherous fall from power is not an exceptional phenomenon, though it carries some very unique and conflicting traits. It is essentially a replay of the boom and bust of successive protégés of an all-pervasive military establishment that has continued to make and break the hybrid regimes to suit its shortsighted and constitutionally flawed designs. As Mr Nawaz Sharif, despite being groomed and built as a conservative alternative to progressive liberal Bhuttos, became a leader in his own right, he was sacked thrice for asserting his prime ministerial prerogatives, Similarly, when a most pampered “Ladla” (favoured) Mr Khan, by former COAS General Bajwa and former DG ISI General Faiz, tried to trespass the “prohibited areas” of the appointments of next army chief and DG ISI, he got his fingers burnt. Sensing Mr Khan’s future authoritarian designs, the opposition parties, rallied in Pakistan Democratic Movement and promptly brought a vote of no-confidence against him. As his allies left his coalition, on the wink of generals, to join PDM (plus PPP) government, the ‘democratic alliance’ conveniently forgot the 26-point agenda of reversing civil-military relations and establishing civilian supremacy.
A rowdy blame game and conflict between the ‘creator’ and the ‘creature’ testifies to the crisis of the prevalent hybrid system brokered by the Army. As the personality cult built around the persona of the Great Khan comes to haunt its manufacturers, its de-construction is causing greater troubles than could have been anticipated. When populism seeps into the mass psychology of fascism, it’s difficult to unravel it without demolishing all those traits of a cult that are eulogized by the masses. Compared to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s radical populism mixed with authoritarian tendencies, Imran Khan’s illiberal populist appeal combines quite diverse facets and instinctive fascinations among various age groups of men and women. He remains a cricket hero to a wider club of cricket fans, among upper-class middle and old-aged women in particular. Has a glamorous masculine appeal of a celebrity among a vast section of young men and women. A financially Puritan philanthropist with a misogynist and religiously righteous appeal among the middle classes who adhere to a meta-narrative that is pro-army and anti-politicians.
Like Anna Hazare’s Bhrashtachar Virodh Jan Andolan in 1991 in India, Mr Khan after struggling in the wilderness for over a decade launched his justice movement against the corruption of the parties of the old regime in his first big rally at Minar-i-Pakistan in Lahore in 2011. He was backed by no less than successive DGs of ISI from General Gul Hameed, a pro-Taliban jihadi hawk, to General Faiz, the Machiavellian. His famous Dharna against the third Nawaz Sharif Government in 2014 was also backed by the then DG ISI General Zahirul Islam Abbasi and the then COAS General Raheel Sharif, who wanted an extension in his tenure. All parties across the Isle in the parliament got united and foiled Imran Khan’s street coup. But, later, the judges sympathetic to Mr Khan disposed of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and dubiously disqualified him from holding any public office on a flimsy charge for all times to come, thus paving the way for the PTI chief.
As prime minister for over three and a half years, Imran Khan enjoyed being on the “same page” with the Army leadership until he tried to outsmart his benefactors who got extremely disenchanted with his clueless poor governance. Surrounded by sycophants and fortune-seekers, the Kaptan not only failed to deliver on any promise, except fixing his opponents and the media. He did not let any leader emerge in the provinces he governed, nor allowed a worthwhile team to flourish. Now, he is left with a disorganized mass of chaotic youth without any ideology and any measure of organization at any level. Unlike the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, who stood the pressure and hostility of the establishment for too long and survived, Mr Khan’s political fortunes are under deep clouds. His party may not and should not be banned, nor his followers be tried by military courts. The human rights bodies and the liberals, whom Imran Khan has always been castigating, are yet again coming forward to defend the civil, political, and human rights of his party and activists.
What makes the current political imbroglio more pervasive is an all-out crisis of the political economy and the unsustainability of a heavy ‘national security state’ on the basis of a dependent and fragile economic base over-burdened with debt and defence expenditure and rent-seeking elites. The current crisis is further fueled by the intra-state conflicts among various power structures and state institutions vying for retaining their fiefdoms or expanding their respective space beyond their ‘constitutional mandate’, which is not adhered to by any pillar of the state. Post-Bajwa military under COAS General Asim Munir had vowed to keep aloof from politics, but Imran Khan forced it to run out of patience, and the May 9 ‘mutiny’ has drawn a red line that will have its own adverse consequences on a fragile democratic transition. From the fall of the hybrid regime of Imran Khan, Pakistan may be moving toward yet another edition of a quasi-democratic dispensation or worse a civilian martial law.
The writer is a freelance journalist and Secretary General of SAFMA. He can be reached at: Imtiaz.email@example.com
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