Imran Khan’s arrest a test of nerves for power alignments in Pakistan

Another crisis besieges Pakistan amid severe financial stress.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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Somehow resembling the chaotic street politics of the last few months, the dramatic arrest of Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan by paramilitary unit Pakistan Rangers on the premises of the Islamabad High Court on May 9, and the ensuing unrest, mark an expected escalation that may test the nerves of power alignments in the country.

Since his ouster as the Prime Minister of Pakistan in April last year through a no-confidence vote, Khan and his party have relied on street mobilisation in taking on the current government, and more significantly, in confronting the immensely powerful army establishment. Once a blue-eyed boy of the top brass of the army headquartered at Rawalpindi, Khan did miscalculate his elbow room vis-à-vis army during his stint as Pakistan PM. In the later part of his tenure, for instance, this was evident when he was having his own plans for picking the next ISI chief. As the shift in support of a few legislators forced his ouster in an equally dramatic no-confidence vote, Khan couldn’t reconcile to the withdrawal of patronage from the defence establishment. In fact, he took recourse to one of the many conspiracy theories to explain his ouster- an American ploy to remove him because of his independent foreign policy. 

For all its bluster, such a line of attack was seen by analysts as Khan’s caution in not burning bridges with the Pakistan army, and shifting the blame to an external force. But it was embarrassing for the defence establishment in western capitals nonetheless, and more so, when the country was eyeing foreign aid from institutions such as the IMF. Such inferred reasoning, however, didn’t last long as there was role reversal soon. By November last year, Imran had largely retracted his American ploy narrative and was talking about better ties with the US. He had in fact begun to attribute his ouster to sections of Pakistan’s defence establishment.

Khan’s party seemed convinced about his cult status in the crucial Punjab province and to an extent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , though far less in Sindh and  not that relevant in Bolochistan. That might explain why unlike other ousted prime ministers in the country’s past, Khan chose to stay in Pakistan and test his charismatic sway with supporters for street mobilisation. Eyeing the national polls this year, his Tehreek-e-Insaf party hoped to direct such mobilisation as a measure of popular surge that could again put Khan in charge of the top political executive office of Pakistan. 

The cultivation of the cult of Imran Khan as a political force has clearly been a new momentum to reckon with in the country’s power play. The tone, tenor and the scale of the display of street power by Khan’s party, posed a challenge to the army-orchestrated democratic arrangement. But, something wasn’t that unfamiliar: Khan faces more than 120 corruption cases, mostly alleging financial impropriety and abuse of power. His arrest came in one such case investigated by Pakistan’s anti-graft watchdog National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The case names Khan’s Al Qadir Trust as an alleged beneficiary of the funds laundered by Malik Riaz Hussain, a real estate tycoon and one country’s wealthiest men.

In fact, the street power displayed by his party workers had come in the way of Khan’s arrest in another case almost two months ago. There have also been assassination attempts on him, though the opinion has been divided on political lines about the nature and motives of the attack. Following the attacks, Khan has been further sharpening his tirade against the army. Interestingly, far from accusing his political opponents for the attack, Khan has accused a top ranking ISI officer for plotting to get him killed, though without any evidence. In a recent public rally, he accused Maj Gen Faisal Naseer of masterminding the attacks, a claim that has clearly enraged the ISI top brass.  

In the midst of many legal battles, Khan and his party have been relying on the support from a significant section of the top judiciary, a hope that was reinforced by some of the recent decisions. But, after examining Khan’s arrest order, the Islamabad High Court declared the process legal. While the recourse of filing an appeal in the Supreme Court has been availed, it’s just one of the many cases that await the beleaguered former prime minister. That, for instance, was evident on May 10 when he was convicted by a court in Islamabad in the Toshakhana case. 

In its immediate effect, the conviction in any of the numerous cases could mean that Khan would be disqualified from contesting elections. That would imply that Tehreek-e-Insaf would have to replace him with someone else at the helm. It’s a scenario that both current PM Shehbaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the rival-turned-current ally foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-led Pakistan People’s Party would find favourable. It was only in April 2018 that PML-N chief and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was banned from participating in elections for life. Sharif was convicted and disqualified for far less charges – non-disclosure of money from his son’s company in Dubai, as revealed in Panama Papers.

In wake of the Tehreek-e-Insaf-led mobilisation, Pakistan’s defence establishment would also be alert to how the cracks within its  huge apparatus could benefit its detractors. The possibilities of leveraging political divisions within the army, for instance, seemed to be one of the objectives of Khan’s “long march”, as seen in the stir’s articulation of the choice of new army chief. That’s something that the army could ill-afford at this moment when a section of  public opinion about its role in politics could be harsh, and obviously, not approving. The decision to finally act firmly in arresting the former prime minister, the imprint of new army chief Asim Munir is clear. The execution of politically sensitive tasks is almost unthinkable in Pakistan’s body politic. That, however, also means that the new chief now has to see how the Rawalpindi generals act in concert to quell the mass protests, violence and reported vandalism in different parts of the country – targeted at their own headquarters and residence of some top officers. 

This latest crisis has besieged Pakistan at a time when the country is under severe financial stress, and the economy is out of depths to offer a way out of the skyrocketing inflation and cost of living woes for the common Pakistani. The talks for financial aid and big bailout deals haven’t yet been fully realized. Given the latest turn of events, it’s plausible that Islamabad would be watching how some major western capitals, crucial for its financial aid hopes, might look at these developments. While the insidious signs of political instability and disorder would hardly escape notice,  concerns about democratic process are also likely to surface. But, the army-led aid-seeking efforts would rely on their ability to emphasise the context in which the events have to be seen by western powers and global financial institutions. 

The experience of dealing with Pakistan, bordering on the fatigue of normalising the irregular, may make many western capitals look the other way. In its first reaction, for instance, the US State Department said that it “doesn’t have a position on one political candidate or party versus another”, before adding the usual note about respect for democratic principles and the rule of law. For all practical purposes, statements like this imply that the Washington chose not to poke, something that Pakistan leadership expected. Even the British Prime Minister chose to distance the UK from an active response, and called the current crisis “an internal matter of Pakistan”. However, besides the West, Pakistan can still direct aid-seeking efforts to neighbouring world power China, though with more stringent terms than what Beijing was willing to extend to Islamabad a decade ago. Even Beijing would weigh how its strategic interest in a stable Pakistan can’t be extended to be one of its top geopolitical priorities. The cost-benefit calculus would never be out of the sight of the Chinese foreign office.

The mobilisation of public rage against the arrest, with dramatic scenes of irate mob’s vandalism being relayed to a global audience, has been initially met with restraint from the defence establishment. Was the restraint a part of the larger plan – that the army has to deal with such mobilisation and political momentum – or a sign of a divided house? It’s too early to hazard a guess, and the same is true for speculation about brewing conditions of a low-intensity civil war. 

The widespread presence of the army in Pakistan’s public life, to the extent of it being seen as a state-security apparatus fusion, makes it a bit implausible at the the moment to see an alternate stabilising force in the country’s polity.   

The moment of popular ferment, however, might make one lose sight of the essential. To see chances of democratic upsurge in such rage wouldn’t be just too early, but against the weight of history where the army has been the pivot of the power arrangements, and the arbiter of democratic process, or whatever goes in its garb. Moreover, it’s doubtful whether a leader, who himself rode on the support of the military to the peak of civilian power, has the credibility to shake off the institutional memory of the military’s anchoring presence in the political life of Pakistan. Even when seen through the prism of the teflon-coated cult status in the eyes of his supporters, the multiple corruption charges  against him present a huge legal challenge in his bid to emerge as untainted. Regardless of these obvious factors, the next few weeks will see whether the political contract of power-wielding in Pakistan would have to take note of the new forces on the rise. 

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article imageThe failure of Imran Khan comes as no surprise


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