Attack on Imran Khan: Pakistan’s unending political culture of violence
Killings have become a routine feature and for different reasons--political, business, or tribal in Pakistan
Governments in Pakistan often get worked up when their country is referred to as “dangerous” but deep down whether it is the civilians or the brass hats they know that violence has become a part of the political culture starting with the assassination in 1951 of their first Prime Minister.
Since then, killings have become a routine feature and for different reasons, political, business, or tribal. But when the former Prime Minister Imran Khan was shot at and injured in a rally demanding snap elections, some looked at it as an attempt on the life of a political opponent.
The first conspiracy theories and theorists are yet to surface in any definitive fashion; but Imran Khan has been on the wrong side of the political spectrum ever since he was thrown out in a no-confidence motion and replaced by Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who is currently in exile.
But it was not just the vote inside Parliamentary chambers that cut down the tenure of Khan to about four years—there was the loss in the Supreme Court and not before coalition partners abandoned leaving the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the minority.
For quite some time starting before his downfall Khan has been running around with the notion that his ouster was orchestrated by elements that included the military and the United States. And Washington came into the picture because of a meeting that David Lu, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, had with the Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States and in an accusation that millions of dollars had changed hands in an “open horse trading” where lawmakers were “sold” like “goats and sheep.”
According to Khan, all of this because he pursued an independent foreign policy that was perceived as being getting closer to Russia, China and Iran. And since the time of the Taliban returning to Afghanistan, Khan claims he has negated the use of his country’s airspace.
Khan has been on a warpath going on to accuse David Lu as the chief mastermind and even shared an alleged diplomatic cable from his Ambassador in Washington that accused Lu of “threatening” a coup unless Islamabad changed course with a flipside that all will be given a pass if the Prime Minister was overthrown.
The contents of the diplomatic cable were stopped from public viewing as a result of an injunction from the Islamabad High Court. The Sharif-Washington conspiracy angle has further been whipped up after the Election Commission debarred Khan from holding political office last month. The five-year disqualification which has been challenged and pending in a court of law has to do with alleged sale of state gifts unlawfully and concealing assets as a Prime Minister.
Political turbulence has been an integral part of Pakistani politics and not just with the assassination of a Prime Minister in Rawalpindi in 1951; former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown in a coup and later hanged by General Zia ul Haq who himself perished violently when his plane was blown up midair; Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed during the course of an election rally in 2007 with the last word yet to be said on the subject and former President-cum-strongman Pervez Musharraf himself survived a few attempts on his life. And the sad part of the commentary is that none of the 29 Pakistani Prime Ministers have completed a full term in office, with the 30th perhaps anxiously looking at his future.
There are many ways that the attempt on the life of Imran Khan could play into, the first of which plunging Pakistan into a violent spiral that few in the country or region would want. The government, in expressing its shock at the turn of events, has asked not to place the event in any political context and for obvious reasons.
Khan is supposedly back on the political trail but at least one of his supporters has been killed and a handful injured in the attack in the eastern part of the Punjab province. Only days before the attack on him, Khan is supposed to have said, “For six months I have been witnessing a revolution taking over the country. Only question is will it be a soft one through the ballot box or a destructive one through bloodshed?”
Some political analysts believe that Khan’s political and legal troubles could have only made him more popular in a country where he was already a “hero” given his cricketing status of the 1980s and the 1990s. And that his rhetoric against the United States and the military would only have added more to his standing and hence could very well emerge as the favorite very soon.
But in a country that has seen the brass hats play a role since the early 1950s and a force that was instrumental in his own coming to power in 2018, Khan cannot get on the wrong side of the armed forces and still make it to the top. The last thing that the military in Pakistan wishes to be reminded is that its place is in the barracks.
The Generals have been smarting from the time Khan started talking about an independent foreign policy—at times even praising India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as not being at the end of the subservient stick in international affairs.
The powers that be in the uniform are not said to be too enthusiastic about Islamabad’s foreign policy towards China and Russia, perhaps even embarrassed that Prime Minister Khan showed up at the Kremlin for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on February 24, the day of the start of his “Special Operation” against Ukraine. If Khan believes that the military would throw its weight in a showdown against its interests, he will be in a totally different world.
***The writer was a senior journalist in Washington covering North America and the United Nations. Views expressed are personal.