The Empire Strikes Back: The Rise and Fall of Imran Khan

Famous French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once said “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. This 19th century quote perfectly captures the political reality of Pakistan after the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan on Aug 5. Imran Khan, who championed the slogans “Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan)” and “Haqiqi Azadi (The Real Freedom),” has become the latest victim of the Pakistan Army’s old machinations of disposing of civilian leaders when they do not fit into its gameplan. However, since the ouster of Imran Khan last year in a no-confidence motion and the violence perpetrated by his supporters after his arrest on May 9, there is a temptation to think that Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), have fundamentally altered the dynamics of civil-military relations in Pakistan. This requires a careful examination of the patterns of civil-military relations in Pakistan, especially after the demise of Zia-ul-Haq (the second Army Chief and Sixth President of Pakistan). It has been the phase that saw the rise and fall of three leaders i.e., Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto, and Imran Khan, who have shaped the contemporary political landscape of Pakistan. 

Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which owes its origins to the patronage of Zia-ul-Haq, came to power after the ouster of Imran Khan. It was Zia who picked Nawaz as the finance minister of Punjab in 1981 and later as its chief minister in 1985. Nawaz Sharif first became the prime minister in 1991 as a candidate of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI). IJI itself was a creation of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to remove Benazir Bhutto from power, as later admitted by its director general, Asad Durrani, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court.

Both Nawaz and Benazir, who served three and two times as prime ministers, respectively, were unable to complete their terms in office due to their confrontation with the all-powerful Pak establishment. Both Nawaz and Benazir, who had a popular following in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, got into the crosshairs of the military establishment when they tried to assert the principle of civilian supremacy. In the case of Nawaz, it was his peace overtures to India during his second term that displeased the powerful elements in the Pakistani military. In the case of Benazir, she was labeled a security risk when she attempted to normalize relations with India during her first term.

Unlike Nawaz and Benazir, who come from powerful business families and political pedigrees, Imran Khan is a self-made man with a charismatic personality based upon his leadership of the 1992 Cricket World Cup-winning team and his efforts to build the largest cancer hospital in memory of his mother, Shaukat Khanam. This made Imran an ideal candidate for the Pak Army to prop him up as a third alternative to the already entrenched dynasties of Sharifs and Bhuttos, who are marred by allegations of corruption and nepotism. Yet Imran Khan failed to make his mark in Pakistani politics until 2018, when the military establishment, after ousting Nawaz Sharif from his third term in the Panama Papers scandal, decided to back Imran Khan wholeheartedly. Imran Khan’s PTI, which managed to win only 35 seats in the 2013 general election, was brought to power in 2018 through political manoeuvrings done by the Pakistan Army. PTI, which was short of the 172 required majority in parliament, managed to form the government by using ‘electables’, who were mostly coerced by the Pak military to support Khan’s government. This ‘hybrid’ regime, which was touted as a new experiment in Pakistan where civilian and military leadership are on the same page, unravelled due to Khan’s eccentric leadership style. His attempts to form a new Islamic block with Turkey and Malaysia by alienating Pakistan’s traditional Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, had put the Pakistani military in a difficult position. His handling of economic affairs was abysmal, which soon disillusioned his backers in the Pakistani establishment. The last straw in the camel’s back was Imran’s insistence on appointing his favourite general, Faiz Hameed, as head of ISI, thus making the fatal mistake of meddling in military internal affairs.

Yet unlike previous experiments, the making and unmaking of Imran Khan has proved to be a costly affair for the Pak establishment. First, Imran Khan has been able to break the monolithic power elite in Pakistan. He found his backers among the ex-servicemen community of the military, the higher judiciary, and the media. The imprisonment of retired Lt-General Amjad Shoaib and the grand-daughter of ex-army chief Asif Nawaz Janjua, Khadija Shah, is quite unprecedented in Pakistan, where the elite of the Pakistani military is usually considered untouchable. In its internal inquiry done after the May 9th incident, a Lt-General was sacked and action was taken against three major generals and seven brigadiers. Further, Imran Khan got strong backing from the current chief justice of Pakistan, Umar Ata Bandiyal. Another new element in the current saga of Imran Khan is his strong support among Pakistanis overseas, especially those in the USA and UK, which makes it difficult for the Pak establishment to treat Imran the same way as Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. The dependence of Pakistan on foreign remittances and the fear of reprimand from Western media have given Khan some leverage in his battle for supremacy with the Pak establishment. The third but not the last element is the element of social media, which is a new entity in Pakistani politics. PTI under Imran Khan recognised very early the potential of social media in communicating with youth, hence having an early mover advantage. The military, which has completely censured Imran Khan in mainstream media, especially after the violence of May 9, has failed to counter the narrative of Imran supporters in the social media space. His supporters have trending slogans criticising the military’s role in government affairs and have even compared General Bajwa with Yahya Khan, who was the army chief during the breakup of Pakistan in the 1971 war.

Yet despite his charismatic personality and his massive following among youth, Imran hasn’t been able to dent the Army’s hold over power. This can be mainly attributed to the structural and ideological limitations of Imran Khan’s politics. Khan, despite his polemics of “Naya Pakistan,” has failed to come up with an alternative ideological conception of civil-military relations in Pakistan. During his stint in power, he too colluded with the army to suppress his opponents in media and politics, so now that the tables have turned, Khan is unable to claim moral high ground. Further, Khan could not resist hardline groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan on the issue of blasphemy demonstrating his inability to steer Pakistan in liberal and progressive direction. Furthermore, his inability to create a grassroots-level organisation of PTI instead of relying on his personal charisma to garner votes is now proving too costly for him since many of his closest allies, to name a few, like Fawad Chaudhary (Minister of Science and Technology in PTI Govt.), Firdous Awan (Minister for Population Welfare in PTI Govt.), and Shirin Mazari (Minister of Human Rights in PTI Govt.), deserted him when the crunch time came. Also, unlike Nawaz Sharif and Benazir, both of whom served long terms in jail, Khan attempts till the last moment to cut a favourable deal with the military establishment, denting his image as an agent of change.

As of now, with Khan in jail and disqualified for 5 years in the “Tosha Khana (Treasure House)” case and the selection of politically lightweight Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar as caretaker prime minister, it seems that the military establishment’s hold over power in Pakistan is complete. With Nawaz Sharif still disqualified under the Panama case and an ailing Asif Ali Zardari, any future challenge to the military establishment in Pakistan seems quite unlikely. As the country celebrated its 76th Independence Day on Aug. 14, the political landscape in Pakistan appears barren and bleak. A country that was founded by a constitutionalist like Jinnah with the promise of a utopia for Muslims on the subcontinent is again in the firm grip of the Mullah-military alliance. Any attempts to break the logjam require courageous leadership with fresh ideological imagination, which at present is not on the horizon. Imran Khan, who in his 2019 tour in the USA declared that he would remove the air conditioner from Nawaz Sharif’s prison cell, is currently writing an application to prison authorities to provide him with class A facilities. This sad state of affairs is aptly put by Marx when he said that “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce”.

[Photo by FSCEM45212, via Wikimedia Commons]

Prashant Singh is a PhD Student at the Centre for South Asian studies, School of International studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.

Alok Kumar Dubey is an M.Sc. student at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

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