Pakistan in doldrums: Is ex-PM Imran Khan proving to be nemesis for General Bajwa?
Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had expected Imran to sit quietly like his predecessors, however, the reverse is happening as army veterans as well as the middle and lower rung military officials are backing the ex-Pakistan Prime Minister
The ouster of Imran Khan has created a crisis in Pakistan not witnessed for decades. Historically no Pakistan PM has ever completed a full tenure, though Imran was expected to. His falling with the army and economic collapse of Pakistan meant he had to be sacrificed. No Pakistan ex-PM has ever fought back the way Imran Khan has. He has divided the country into either supporting an independent government led by him or a US nominated one backed by the army.
His image projection of honesty as also his background of being the cricket world cup winning team captain has given him a cult like image. Imran claimed that he was removed from office because the US desired it. He continues accusing the current government of being corrupt and US stooges. Since his ouster, Imran has been holding a series of rallies to muster support. He has threatened a march to Islamabad with his supporters at the end of May.
While the Pakistan army employed a multi-pronged strategy to remove Imran, it never expected a rebound. General Bajwa had expected Imran to sit quietly like his predecessors, however the reverse happened. This was due to Imran realizing that he had support from veterans as also the middle and lower rung military cadre. Retired Pakistan Lt Gen Omar Hayat stated, “A vast majority of retired and serving armed forces personnel support Imran Khan’s narrative because they see him as the polar opposite of traditionally corrupt politicians.”
Even a declaration by General Bajwa of not seeking another extension has done little to calm nerves. Imran went out of the way targeting General Bajwa adding to divisions with the army. He stated at a rally, “There are also humans in institutions. If one or two individuals do something wrong, the entire institution is not responsible. If one person (in reference to Gen Bajwa) makes a mistake, this does not mean the whole institution is at fault.’ His rallies have slogans including, “Chowkidar (army) chor hai.”
Hitting at the army’s neutrality in the crisis, Imran stated, in a rally, over the weekend, “God will ask you if you struggled against an imported government. You won’t be able to say (and make the excuse that) you were neutral.”
Imran’s popular support from urban youth resulted in trolling of the Pakistan army on social media. The trolling reached such levels that the Pakistan DG ISPR termed it as “illegal, immoral and against national interest.”
Post a special corps commanders conference held to discuss Imran’s ouster the army issued a statement which read, “National security of Pakistan is sacrosanct. The Pakistan Army has always stood by the state institutions to guard it and always will, without any compromise.” The army continued to deny any interference in Pakistan politics. In Punjab, the governor approached the army to remove and arrest the newly appointed CM, to which there was no response.
Last weekend, a concerned Pakistan army released another statement which read, ‘This practice of unsubstantiated, defamatory and provocative statements/remarks (against the army) is extremely damaging.’ PTI social media team members have been arrested for anti-army trolling. What Imran has been able to achieve is place roadblocks on the army in interfering in the functioning of future governments. The Pakistan army is aware that Imran holds secrets, including true casualties of Balakote, which it would never desire to be released. However, it cannot trust Imran to suppress them.
The battle royale between Imran Khan and the Shehbaz Sharif-led government is on elections. Imran is aware that with passage of time his rhetoric against the US would end, while corruption charges would come to light. He would be unable to keep his flock together for long. Thus, early elections are the best bet. For the Shehbaz Sharif government the opposite is true. It would not consider elections prior to May 2023, thus ensuring Imran is sidelined. Shehbaz desires elections before the end of Bajwa’s term, hoping for army support. Imran’s planned march to Islamabad in end May is aimed at adding pressure on the army and the government to hold early elections. Confusion reigns on elections.
In case the government digs its heels and refuses to accept Imran’s demands, while not inciting violence, Imran will have lost the war. Imran has planned his march at a time when fuel prices are rising, subsidies given by him are being lifted, adding to inflation. This gives him an advantage. The government is not quiet either. It is roping in Imran’s close associates into corruption charges ensuring fingers are pointed at him.
It has already begun targeting Farah Gogi, a confidant of Imran’s wife, who fled the country as soon as Imran was toppled. She is accused of making billions. Imran supporting her vociferously only added to the government’s belief that they hit the right nail. The foreign funding case against Imran’s PTI is moving to conclusion. These could push Iman away from the political arena.
There are also rumours that certain objectionable videos of Imran are with the authorities for release. A worried Imran stated that there are plans for his character assassination. The government is ordering an independent inquiry into Imran’s claims of a US plot. The government seeks to buy time till May 2023, while Imran pushes for early elections.
Imran is also targeting other national institutions including the judiciary and the election commission, claiming them to be biased. This has resulted in their decisions being scorned by his supporters. By this, he is hoping to stall any decision which would flow against him. However, it has only resulted in degrading Pakistan’s democratic structures.
The Shehbaz government is working overtime to mend ties with the US, aware of the fact that it needs its backing for an IMF loan. If the loan stalls, Shehbaz suffers in reputation. Simultaneously, Imran spews hatred against the US accusing it of being behind his ouster. For him, stalling of the loan makes no difference as he is no longer responsible. The US and India are two enemies of Pakistan, so accusing them is easy. Linking the Pakistan army to the US is only making things worse. Currently, Shehbaz cannot even contemplate talks with India as it would be accused of doing so under US pressure.
There are also reports that the CPEC, funded by China, has almost come to a standstill. Only three projects in Gwadar have been completed. The Chinese are unwilling to invest further due to the deteriorating security scenario and non-payment of dues by Pakistan. While projects may be stuck, Pakistan has to repay the loans that it has taken from China and other countries. There is also a looming wheat crisis in Pakistan. As per reports, Pakistan would need USD 1.2 billion for purchasing wheat this year alone. Added would be subsidies to the public. It barely has foreign exchange reserves for 5 weeks of imports. Pakistan’s economic woes are unlikely to go away soon.
Growing fault lines between Imran and the government are unlikely to end soon. The longer they continue the more they impact the survival of Pakistan’s democracy. At the end of the day, if all else fails, Imran may push for violence to achieve his aim. If that happens it would open doors for another army takeover. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s economic woes continue. Without a stable political environment, resolving the economic crisis is next to impossible.
India needs to sit on the sidelines and watch the Pakistan circus unfold. Currently, Pakistan needs no enemies when it has enough internally.
***The writer is a commentator on strategy and foreign affairs; views expressed are his personal