It’s a scene unusual even for Pakistan. The police firing tear gas and water cannons to get past a crowd to arrest a former Prime Minister, in another attempt that promises to be no more successful than all the times tried earlier since 2017.
A huge sympathy for Imran Khan is apparent from the hundreds of supporters willing to risk their lives to protect their leader. The Pakistan Rangers have added their heft which brings in the khakis, and Imran Khan has retaliated with a powerful address to the country. The scene is set for complete chaos, even as an economic meltdown threatens. Pakistan has been unstable for years, but this is unprecedented. Is this a civil war?
The Zaman Park Chaos
It's now been 24 hours since Islamabad police turned up at Zaman Park, Lahore, trying to enter the house together with the Punjab police, armed with all the paraphernalia of crowd control and an order from the Islamabad court to arrest Khan on the issue of the ‘Toshakana’ gifts case, where he is accused of having kept for himself valuable wrist watches, and the likes.
So far, at least 54 policemen have been injured, including a senior officer. The chaos worsened as Imran Khan called upon his supporters to come out onto the streets, leading to protests in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi, and Peshawar among other cities.
Even as the operation was launched, Khan chose to broadcast an impressive address while sitting behind a heap of spent tear gas shells and other ammunition.
Khan’s verbal volley shots in turn, went not just against the ruling coalition with the main target being Nawaz Sharif whom he accused of being part of the ‘plot’ to unseat him, but amazingly at the Army, thus, antagonising yet another Army Chief. That’s dangerous stuff.
Khan also warned, perhaps rightly, that he had no longer any power to control his supporters. Those are clearly in the hundreds as they thronged to a leader whom they believe to be their only protector against an inept and encroaching state.
He was also hypocritical in the extreme when he plaintively asked what he had done to have policemen scaling his walls. He naturally omitted mentioning that a citizen asked to appear in court, is bound to do so and that his lordships have been more than accommodating in extending his date for appearance to 18 March.
In an interview with the BBC, he declared that what Pakistan needed was that everyone, including the ’neutrals’, his highly popular euphemism for the Army should be answerable to the law. That’s hilarious. But the point is that all of this, including his championing of the cause of justice and rights for the ‘common man’, has been bought hook, line, and sinker.
As celebrities rally behind him, one talked of ‘awe’ at the support Khan is getting. The police are in a stew. If they don’t arrest him in this second attempt after the earlier one on 5 March, they'd look incredibly foolish. If they do, the chaos could be multiplied by a hundred. That’s a possible civil war. It could happen. That’s public danger number one.
As Economic Crisis Deepens, Political Turmoil Makes Matters Worse
Even as the Lahore High Court stepped in to stop the police operation till the next day, the government announced a rise in the most inflationary High-Speed Diesel (HSD) prices to a record Rs 293 per litre, and petrol to Rs 272 per litre.
That’s going to hit the consumers directly, with even the middle class now finding it difficult to make ends meet. The very poor are getting desperate, even as the elite who are among the very richest in South Asia – don’t really suffer.
But some 800,000 Pakistanis left last year, among them are the skilled and the educated hit by inflation and severe climate crisis. The Zaman Park incident in isolation may have just made a sensational splash. Together with the rest, it's explosive.
Danger number two, is therefore, a complete economic breakdown as power, gas and food shortages overwhelm the public. A crash when it comes could be violent and spread like wildfire. An internal refugee crisis is likely, and Pakistanis are already fighting at visa counters to get out.
Meanwhile, the ante has been upped as the Pakistani Rangers which are Army-led joined the fray. That means the ‘establishment’ is on board. Or, at least a part of it.
Rather puzzling was the official release by the Federal Government, a list of all those who benefitted from the Toshakana gifts. For those unversed, these are valuable gifts given to various Prime Ministers and Heads of State.
Earlier, the government had refused to release the list on the ground that it was ‘sensitive’ information. Now that it has, the 466-page list shows that all benefitted, including General Musharraf and his wife, Nawaz Sharif and his wife, and Zardari.
The only person not on the list is present Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, but that doesn’t seem to be helping much. The suspicion that someone is backing Khan becomes stronger, since publicising the list has only served to convince supporters that their idol is guilty of nothing that is not acceptable in South Asian politics.
What after all are a few watches(even if each was worth millions) in comparison to (alleged) systematic looting by the Sharifs and other political families? Hasn’t Khan dared to thumb his nose at the one institution which was above the law – the Army?
Under Khan’s tutelage, the Army as an institution of stability, has been batted out of the field for the foreseeable future. The public is well aware of the riches that retiring generals and their lower colleagues accrue. These riches get steadily reduced down the hierarchy, and it is the lower ranks and their families back at home who are likely to suffer the most, as resentment against them mounts.
The alternative is a coup. But if General Munir does not take the step, it's because he’s not certain of support from the Corps Commanders. Besides, that would finish off the possibility of an IMF loan. Military governments don’t get a dole. Danger number three is that the Army breaks under the strain of public ignominy, repeated terror attacks, and divided loyalties.
Getting Down to Brass Tacks: The Threat to India
There are now many arguing that India should step in before it's too late. No one, however, is able to home in on exactly what the threat is or what is to be done.
There is little India can do to avert a civil war, and any intervention is likely to be viewed with deep suspicion, leading to what is purely an internal crisis, turning outwards. That is completely undesirable. Aid is possible, but again will be forgotten as soon as it is given, unless it is on such a massive scale as to make it memorable and a game-changer.
But given a global economic meltdown, India is unlikely to take such a politically expensive step. In the case of an Army breakdown, there is again little India can do, except use all possible ways to ensure that nuclear assets are safe. In all honesty, any such instability is highly unlikely to affect nuclear safety. The Pakistan Army is a lot more responsible and capable than it admits itself to be.
There is, however, one outcome that hasn’t been considered. Pakistan has hobbled around for decades, on an economic drip arrangement ( 23 times since its membership), and toyed disastrously with religious extremism from the 1970s onwards, all of which has rebounded on the state and its military. This upheaval may be the best thing to happen to Pakistan, forcing changes in governance, and power hierarchies, and pushing it towards a democratic order.
The question is who will direct these changes. A Beijing-led consortium would be disastrous, and extremely likely with some Islamic states on board. This future arrangement is where Indian diplomatic efforts need to be directed, keeping in mind that a US-dominated Pakistan is not in our interests either, given its history. It’s a serious maze of options and will need all the dexterity that Foreign Minister Jaishankar is capable of. Time to put all heads together.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)