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Pakistan’s end state is unpredictable The Excelsior 22 May 2023
Addressing party workers in his first public appearance after has assassination attempt in Nov last year, Imran Khan stated, ‘if you want to live life in the true sense, free yourself from the fear of death,’ adding, ‘remember that death cannot come unless Allah is willing for it, and when the time comes, no one can escape.’ Post his recent release by the Supreme Court, Imran stated, ‘I am ready to die than live under these duffers. The question is are you ready.’ He subsequently mentioned, ‘Freedom does not come easily. You have to snatch it. You have to sacrifice for it.’ Imran continuously talks of Jihad and a fight to the death against the state and the army, aware that there is no other option.
Imran has been hinting about a possible civil war unless his conditions are met. He mentioned in a TV interview in Jun last year, ‘We will see if they allow us to go towards elections through legal and constitutional means, otherwise this country will go towards (a) civil war.’ On occasions Imran has mentioned that a revolution is on the way. His accusations and threats, growing in intensity, pushed the army and the government to a corner compelling them to react, leading to his arrest.
Imran, currently protected by the courts, is facing new accusations daily, including charges for sedition and harbouring terrorists. For the common Pakistani, caught in an unending economic crisis, survival has become a challenge. In this period of darkness, Imran appears as a hope. His insistence of not leaving Pakistan and fighting to the end has given him a messiah like status. His speeches and promises have made the public believe that he will create a utopian medina state. His arrest shattered many dreams.
Few expected levels of violence which flowed, targeting army installations, pushing Pakistan’s most powerful institution on the backfoot. It also displayed cracks within the army’s elite leadership. The army responded in the only way it could, using its power to break the fabric of Imran’s political party. On Imran’s release by the Supreme Court, it arrested PTI’s second and third rung leaders, followers in thousands and announced recommencing army courts to try protestors under the army act, all aimed at conveying to Imran as to what would follow, in case he did not heel.
Imran’s second rung leadership, post a short stint behind bars, where it was possibly lectured and blackmailed, has either gone silent or are leaving the party, aware they would not receive treatment similar to Imran, if they were re-arrested. This has left Imran with few backers to challenge the power of the state.
The fear within the ruling hierarchy of Pak (army and government) is the possible fallout on the next arrest of Imran. It is therefore creating conditions by reducing his stock of followers, handling internal discontent within the army, all of which Imran has absorbed.
When security forces surrounded his Lahore residence last week, Imran sensed his end was near. He began singing a conciliatory tune rather than challenging the state. Instead of accusing the army chief of being against him, Imran promised not to remove him in case he came to power. Imran also surrounded himself with journalists hoping to delay the inevitable.
Adding to his concerns is a depleted and subdued second and third rung leadership. The recent protest by supporters of JUI-F chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, outside the supreme court also sent a message that apart from Imran, others too can muster crowds, implying that in case of future violence, they will challenge Imran’s followers which could enhance violence levels.
The announcement of charging protestors under the army act was solely to restrict courts from intervening. Will the top court still attempt to stall the process before it commences is unknown. The decision to establish military courts may be ideal under current circumstances but is likely to enhance anger against the establishment as the first to face its wrath will be the common unprotected blind follower of Imran. The government, in desperation to stall Imran, has accepted the courts for the moment. Possibly at some future stage it may repent, as these very courts may be used against them and their supporters.
The battle between Imran and the establishment may not be in isolation, though it appears to be. It may also be to satisfy global partners, who view Pakistan and Imran with different lens. An unstable Pakistan heading into an internal abyss is not good news. The only institution which has provided some semblance of stability has been the army, despite all its faults, including turning Pak into a quasi-democracy, controlled by it. The IMF playing financial games is on account of the instability.
Imran has few global supporters. His flirting with Turkey’s Erdogan angered the Saudi’s, resulting in the then army chief, General Bajwa rushing to reset ties. The current army chief also has close ties with Riyadh having been a defence attaché there. So is the status with the Sharif’s. It is unlikely that Saudi will bail out Imran as they did to Nawaz and Musharaff.
For China, whose investments in Pak are substantial, a quasi-democracy with the army remaining all powerful is paramount. Governments may come and go but with the army being the guarantor of the CPEC, China is secure. Imran was anti-CPEC till forced by Bajwa to back it. Hence, Imran will get no backing from Beijing. The US too has never been pro-Imran, though 60 members of Congress have written to the Secretary of State on his behalf. For Washington, a powerful army is essential for stability of a nuclear-powered fundamentalist state.
The major concern within Pak is possible public reaction on subsequent arrest of Imran. While the army has pushed the PTI onto the backfoot by incarcerating and subsequently blackmailing its second and third rung leadership, reactions of the common man is unknown. How will the powerful veteran community as also the middle and lower rung of the army react remains a mystery. Pakistan may plunge into a civil war or the violence could be contained in a few days. Simplistically put, the end state is unpredictable.