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Imran’s moves put Pakistan in a spot The Statesman 05 Apr 2022
Imran Khan came to power with levels of support few PMs have had in Pakistan. A rigged election, backed by the army, national popularity and simultaneous control over the most important state in the country, Punjab. Like his predecessors, midway through his tenure, he felt he could step out of the shadows of his benefactors and dictate terms to the army, rather than submit to them. He took an independent foreign policy approach, refused to sign the appointment of Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum, as the new ISI chief for three weeks, preferring his forerunner, Faiz Hameed. In addition, he attempted to create divisions within the army by discussing another extension of the current army chief, General Bajwa, in public, angering generals waiting in line.
Differences between the army chief and Imran were on display during their respective addresses at the Islamabad Security Dialogue last week. Imran accused the US of pushing for his ouster by a no-confidence vote, sought to defend his visit to Russia and display neutrality in the Russo-Ukraine conflict and termed talks with India conditional to reinstatement of Article 370. The army chief batted for better ties with the US, blamed Russia for the invasion and offered talks with India without preconditions.
These opposite views sent a message that Imran and General Bajwa are not on the same page. The Dawn in an editorial stated, ‘His (Bajwa’s) opinion reveals he stands considerably at odds with the PTI government. This decision has only renewed doubts regarding the actual ‘neutrality’ of the establishment.’ It also mentioned that Bajwa’s divergent views should have been discussed in a National Security Council meeting, rather than on an open forum.
Pakistan has always been a hybrid democracy, with foreign and defence policies controlled by the army, with a civilian government as a front. For global visitors, Islamabad was for photo-ops, while Rawalpindi for decisions. The announcement by the army of its neutrality in the political battle, involving the no-confidence motion, enabled the opposition to join hands and plan the ouster of Imran. Historically, no Pakistan PM has completed his full tenure and Imran is no exception. With days of a coup over, the no-confidence motion was a new option, which Imran circumvented.
Further, with the country’s economy going downhill and foreign policy failing, someone had to take the fall, who else but Imran. Pakistan currently faces its highest inflation at 12% and its rupee has already lost 50% to the dollar since Imran came to power. COVID added to its financial problems. However, in his recent speeches, Imran had been projecting himself as the saviour of Pakistan, aware that if elections were held, he could gain.
Imran, now out of the shadows of the army, decided to take a gamble and play his final card, for which he roped in a select team, which comprised of his newly appointed law minister, Fawad Chaudhary, and the deputy speaker, Qasim Suri. So immersed was Suri in his prewritten script, that he erroneously read the name of the speaker, rather than his own, in his order, dismissing the petition. The timing of the last over was perfect. Within minutes of the motion being turned down, Imran recommended dissolution of the senate and the President ordered elections, all within an hour. This has placed Pakistan in a constitutional crisis, as its Supreme Court has taken Suo Moto cognisance as also the opposition has approached it.
Imran’s actions marked the end of season 1 of Pakistan’s game of thrones. The second season would begin with the hearings of the supreme court. How would it progress and what decision they would take would determine whether Pakistan remains an accepted democracy. Pakistan’s legal luminaries termed Imran’s final game as illegal. However, damage has been done and doors have opened for the army to reassert itself.
Imran could not risk a removal. He was aware of corruption cases involving his government and political party coming into limelight and these could result in him landing behind bars. This has been the story with all Pakistan Prime Ministers, jail or escape abroad. With elections, there would be a caretaker government with limited powers, excluding that of prosecuting him. Thus, he chose this approach.
The first damage of Imran’s move has been to Pakistan’s relations with the US. With Imran naming Donald Lu, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Pak-US ties have been damaged. It would take herculean effort by Bajwa to restore them. In case Imran returns, it would grow worse. In addition, the political uncertainty would damage Pakistan’s chances of obtaining the next tranche of the IMF loan. Quoting a financial report the Dawn stated, ‘Investors are concerned the political struggle will distract the authorities from focusing on the yawning current-account deficit.’
The next damage is that Pakistan’s chances of exiting the FATF Grey List are weaker. The US, which carries considerable influence would not be inclined to back Pakistan. Imran’s actions of adopting an anti-US approach has pushed any reconciliation with the generals, who seek closer partnership with the US, further away. In such a scenario, it is unlikely that the generals would consider bringing Imran back to power. He would hope that he gains mass public support based on his recent projections of religion, a medina state and a corruption free government.
Either it was Imran’s ego which refused to accept being thrown out or a collection of wrong advisors which pushed him to take this desperate step. With him periodically mentioning that he would bowl the last over, this plan was already on the table. However, the damage it has done to Pakistan’s image is irreparable in the near future.
Cleaning the mess created by Imran is the responsibility of the Supreme Court and the Pakistan army. The longer they take the greater is the damage to Pakistan’s reputation. Though the PM remains just a figurehead and changes frequently, however, the appointment sends a global message. In the ultimate analysis, what is more important is who is the next army chief and what are his views.