Pakistan: in the Crucible
March 18, 2023 | Expert Insights
With Imran Khan barricaded in his house in Zaman Park, guarded by his youthful supporters (and a contingent of Gilgit-Baltistan Police who challenged the Punjab Police!), the country seems to be heading for even more serious complications. While an open civil war may sound a bit too dramatic at this juncture, the situation can spiral out of control very fast!
For most of its history, Pakistan has not had a stable, functioning democratic system. Four military dictatorships have ruled the country since its independence. The political parties have never had the credibility or the power base to challenge the military directly. The few years when civilians have been in power have been marked by corruption and misgovernance of a high degree till they were unceremoniously seen off by the military under one pretext or the other.
But with the dire economic situation bringing the common man face to face with the realities of seven decades of misrule and military overbearance, Pakistan is at crossroads. On the positive side, it has been given an opportunity to call out the military and force the 'establishment' to toe the democratic line. Only the future will tell whether the Pakistani people grasp the opportunity or continue to suffer.
In 2014 it looked like a new era had dawned in Pakistani political history.
For the first time ever, Imran Khan, a complete political outsider, won the premiership of Pakistan. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), was a comparatively new one. Disgusted by the corrupt machinations of the two principal political dispensations - the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PMLN) and the Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP)- the voters sought a ‘Naya Daur’ in PTI.
The PML(N) represented the right-wing conservative forces in Pakistan while the PPP stood for its left-wing supporters. Each of these political groupings had collaborated with the military previously and had, when found short, been promptly dumped by it. They were well known for their extremely high level of venal corruption and for their family-based politics. Both had scores to settle against the Army. The military was looking for a fresh (read pliant) face to challenge this traditional political class; Imran Khan presented himself as the ideal candidate.
Of course, it was common knowledge that his was a 'hybrid government' with the Pakistani Army as the real power behind PTI.
As Pakistan's only World Cup-winning cricket captain, he already enjoyed a superstar status, despite his playboy image, but politically he was considered 'clean'. After his youthful philandering, he became a 'born again Muslim' and earned considerable public approval through his philanthropic engagements, especially in the creation of the Cancer Charitable Hospital named after his late mother. His populist motto was the creation of a 'Naya Pakistan'.
The then Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had his own issues with the PPP and the PML(N). Khan was a political novice whom the Army could mould, and the honeymoon lasted till last year. With Khan turning into an 'inconvenient ally' with his incessant anti U.S remonstrations, it was time for a regime change. This was done with the connivance of a pliant and subservient judiciary which has been deeply compromised by the military.
Not that Khan covered himself with any glory during his time in the sun-his political inexperience and administrative ineptness became glaringly evident with every passing day and surrounded by equally inept sycophants, there was little scope for mid-course corrections. The fall was imminent, and when he made the first tentative moves to interfere with the appointments in the all-powerful Army, General Bajwa pulled the rug from under him. Rest is history.
The rise and the subsequent fall of Imran Khan are not new phenomena in Pakistani politics. In fact, it is a very familiar story. The Army finds the political situation in the country to be alarming and its power slipping away. So, it tries to manipulate the political system by putting forward its own civilian candidate. In the beginning, there is hope that the Army will be able to manage this individual. But very soon, this puppet grows too powerful for his own good.
Most of the time, this ousted individual is sent into exile like Nawaz Sharif. At other times he is either executed like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto or, in the case of his daughter Benazir, killed in a suicide attack.
Faced with a catastrophic economic situation, largely created by the weakening of governance by military interference and grabbing a much larger share of the national treasure than the nation could afford, the Army finds itself in a corner. Gen Bajwa, just before departure, lamely confessed to the Army's unconstitutional interference in the nation's politics for the last seven decades, and his successor, one of his protégé only, promised to stay away from dabbling in politics. Having let the genie out of the bottle, this is something easier said than done! Since the current crisis began around the end of last year, the Army has been maintaining a studious silence, saying that they are no longer interested in power. However, critics say that having brought this misery upon the head of the people of Pakistan, the Army now wants to wash its hands of any involvement so that the blame for the financial collapse will be on the heads of the politicians. Once it is over, the Army will emerge smelling like roses to claim its perks and privileges all over again!
Other than the Army, the only other player who can influence events in present-day Pakistan is the United States. The U.S. also has no love lost for Imran Khan. Khan openly opposed the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and declared his support for the Taliban. So, they will be happy to see his back. At the same time, they do not want to see Pakistan collapse. To see to this, they will be using their influence with the military to ensure that the Pakistani state functions one way or another. This arrangement has to include a government which is compliant with the military in one way or another.
- However, one distinct feature that marks the political situation this time around is that by sacking Khan, the military has made him an icon that the younger generation and the middle class see as a saviour. He could become the rallying point around which a new and better political system could be created.
- More importantly, public anger is increasingly turning against the Army, its privileged position in Pak society and the perks and lucrative plots and houses that they allocate to themselves at the cost of the common man. Even social media influencers who were traditionally their mouthpieces, whether based in Pakistan or overseas, are spewing venom against the military and calling upon the public to rise against them. This makes the Zaman Park standoff especially interesting.
- The next few weeks are going to be especially critical for the future of Pakistan. For the good of the region, we can only hope that good sense will prevail and the Army, the judiciary and the entrenched political interests make way for the will of the people.