It's going, going, gone. Or is it? In Pakistan, nothing is ever certain till it's done. Technically, Prime Minister Imran Khan has lost his majority in the house and is thus required to resign. But not till that loss has been proved by vote. And as his address to the nation has indicated, Khan is ready for a fight. Khan is probably hoping for a last ditch turn of events, given that it is the dramatic change of sides by a party that is known to be more than feisty, to put it politely, and which could still be ‘advised’ by the final umpire, the army. When political life hangs by a thread, hope springs.
The Push Too Far
Plans for the final push have been on for months, with the Opposition choosing the so-far-untested path of a no-confidence motion to get rid of their nemesis, who has been using his authority to file cases against each of them. Nawaz Sharif has been his biggest target, with cases not just against him but his aides and bureaucrats like the former Intelligence Bureau chief Aftab Sultan, and even the owner of Geo News Mir Shakilur Rehman, the latter for allotment of land in Punjab. Neither was his daughter spared by the National Accountability Bureau, a watchdog that is supposedly impartial in its dealings.
But then, this is South Asia. There were cases filed against former President Asif Zardari, which were quashed in 2017. But a slew of fresh cases against former Prime Ministers and Presidents was launched in 2020 as the Opposition began to gather force to protest against his government. That includes new cases against Zardari and the detention of Shahbaz Sharif, even as Khan directed a committee to ponder on ways to get Nawaz Sharif back from London despite the lack of an extradition treaty. In sum, he gave them hell. Now it's payback time.
The MQM-P Shocker
For days, it seemed that the Opposition, despite their claims, could not find the numbers. After all, resiling from his ‘principled’ stand, the Prime Minister had ditched the disastrous Punjab Chief Minister Buzdar in favour of the wily Pervaiz Ellahi, in return for him supporting his party in the no-confidence motion. But that move further alienated his own party dissidents, who wondered whether there was no one within the party who could helm the state.
Then came the shocker. The Muttahida Quami Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), a key ally with seven seats in the House, decided to pull out and signed the agreement with the leaders of the Opposition.
The MQM-P is an interesting party. It is one of many factions that sprang up after party supremo Altaf Hussian was forced to flee to London in 2017.
The factions include the earlier MQM-Haqiqi, blatantly set up against Altaf, the Pakistan Sarzameen Party, MQM-Farooq Sattar, the US-based Voice of Karachi (VOK) and the Naujawanan-i-Karachi. In short, the ‘establishment’ cut down what was once a powerful force in Sindh.
It may be remembered that the split in the party resulted in the division of the Mohajir vote bank in the 2018 general election, which led to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) replacing the MQM as Karachi’s dominant electoral force. The PTI won 14 of Karachi’s 21 National Assembly seats. Every MQM faction is generally seen as a tool of ‘Aabpara’ (as the ISI is known), though this faction is more in sympathy – some may say even closer than that – to the MQM in London.
What is not clear is whether this is electoral karma at work, with the party now reversing the tables on Khan, or the hand of the establishment in play, especially given the references by Khan to ‘a man in London’ whom Sharif was meeting to topple him. There is also another factor. Keeping in line with the PTI, which is now associated with inflation, unemployment and bad governance, is bad for a party that has so far managed to be on the right side of the fence in almost every government. Whatever it may be, the result is that it is now Imran Khan’s turn to be cut to size.
Imran Has Tried Every Conspiracy Theory
But Imran Khan is sitting tight. This is despite the fact that the Opposition now has numbers so that it no longer has to depend on turncoats from the PTI. Hope seems to float on two counts. One is that Khan has been threatening the defectors, with his party workers earlier attacking Sindh House, where dissidents were housed quite openly.
Further, the PTI has challenged it under Article 63 (A) of the Constitution, in a reference to the court in which it seeks the interpretation of defection, which it cites as “a morally reprehensible and destructive act” and seeking whether such a member can be disqualified for life and “will never be able to pollute democratic streams", the reference adds. The court, so far, has not been encouraging, observing that it was not its job to create a new anti-defection law.
The second is the mysterious letter that he waved at his rally that ostensibly constituted a ‘threat’ to himself. Later, mediapersons were informed that a Pakistani envoy was told by a senior official – now said to be Amb. Asad and Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu – that they had issues with Prime Minister Khan’s foreign policy, especially his visit to Russia and the stance on the ongoing Ukrainian war. That’s a serious allegation and it quite diverges from his original reference to ‘London’. Moreover, the US has completely denied such an allegation.
To top it all off, another PTI leader is now claiming that the Prime Minister may be assassinated, adding that “the Prime Minister was a brave man who will neither accept dollars nor allow bases to be built in the country”. Apparently, in a panic, the PTI is using every conspiracy theory in the book to survive.
Gen Bajwa's Army Has Evolved
Meanwhile, the umpire is obvious only by his complete lack of visibility. True, a meeting of the top brass with the Prime Minister a face-saving exit with early elections and an ‘interim government’. But that’s as clear as it gets. The military clearly doesn’t want to be enmeshed in this dirty political mudslinging, at least publicly. Meanwhile, the has been pointing out that the usual ‘telephone calls’ are not being made, leaving smaller parties confused.
But the army has evolved. Under General Bajwa, it is far more sophisticated and even mature, as was seen in the case of the Indian missile that entered Pakistani territory. If the military is interfering, then it will do so discreetly in order to defy any media examination. Besides, it is pretty clear that Khan has not just soured his relations with the army, but also that he has simply failed to deliver.
While there can be little sympathy for Imran Khan, given his vacillations and intemperate use of language, the unfortunate reality is that there is little to show that Pakistan – now at its most vulnerable stage economically and socially – will stabilise under a new dispensation.
What will be interesting to see is whether such a dispensation will receive encouragement from an apparently impartial establishment to walk the mile in terms of bettering relations with India, thereby allowing a fundamental reset that will see Pakistan emerge as a key regional connectivity hub.
That will bring prosperity for itself and others. That, and that alone, will be the proof of the eating of this pudding, in terms of just who mixed this particular batter.
(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.)