The Angry Young-Old man is back at what he does best. After weeks of foot shuffling and indecision, Imran Khan Niazi, former Prime Minister and bane of 'all things stable' is back on the streets.
At a press conference, he announced that come 28 October, his party would commence a march from Lahore to Islamabad, in what he promised would be the 'biggest sea of people’ ever seen.
That’s quite likely since he continues to draw crowds as the general distrust of the government rises. But an unprecedented event has since occurred. The DG ISI has made his first public pronouncement, and he’s certainly not rooting for Khan in fact, quite the reverse. But Khan and his advisors are determined to take the plunge, such powerful opposition notwithstanding.
Beef Over Army Chief Appointment Intensifies
The march is taking place after a lot of dilly-dallying. Remember, that Khan had accused the ruling party of wanting to appoint a malleable army chief— hardly a surprise since that is what he himself and every ‘elected' or 'selected’ leader has done almost since the state was founded.
But such public declarations are out of the question, and the Army pronounced itself ‘aghast' declaring that “Politicising the senior leadership of Pakistan Army and scandalising the process of selection of the Chief of Army Staff is neither in the interest of the state of Pakistan nor of the institution.”
But such statements are now passe. The army is cruelly divided on the issue of Khan, even in public. The backlash against Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, who will retire next month is unprecedented, with the hashtag “Go Bajwa Go” again trending on Twitter, and not just Imran Khan but also others vilifying him as 'Mir Jafar'(a general who betrayed Siraj-ud-Daulah)
Powerful figures like Gen (retd) Quli Khan have openly backed Khan, while bodies like the 'Veterans of Pakistan' issued a statement calling out US interference in the alleged cypher cable that virtually had the State Department ordering a ‘No Confidence Motion', believing that the whole thing is a conspiracy to stop the China Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) while its supporters believe it is a ploy to get rid of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
This is Pakistan. There is no shortage of conspiracy theories. The point is whether they can be turned into an ‘electable’ issue.
Another Journalist Slain Under Pak Regime
Clearly, Imran think that it could. To the general discontent is an added scandal. This was the mysterious murder of ARY journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya. Sharif was an investigative journalist of repute, and in line with others like him, was in self-imposed exile for his views against the government. Consider another recent story he filed, questioned the sudden death of the Director of Federal Investigation Agency(FIA) Dr Rizwan, who was investigating cases against Shahbaz Sharif.
The manner of his death in Kenya is certainly strange, since his car was hit by a hail of bullets, apparently in a case of ‘mistaken identity’, which then later retracted to say that the occupants fired first, and in a new report indicates that the vehicle was found abandoned some 12 km from the site.
Given Islamabad’s record of either thrashing or killing journalists who question authority, roughly about five in a year, Pakistanis could, in this case, hardly be questioned for assuming the worst. In the event, a huge turnout of cars and people were evident as the body was brought home. Social media once again resounded to calls against Bajwa, while eminent journalists called for a thorough investigation.
Taliban Connect Suspected in Scribe Murder
All of this led to another unprecedented outburst from the Army. A press conference was held by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General (DG) Major General Babar Iftikhar, with a surprise co-convenor ; none other than and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, who has been virtually unseen in public.
The conference not only promised to ensure a ‘transparent’ investigation into the murder but also called for the return of ARY CEO Salman Iqbal, himself charged by a Karachi court. It also chose to again take up the issue of the ‘cypher’ cable ( which had been discussed by then Prime Minister Imran Khan with the slain journalist) and charged that ARY news was in a campaign to defame and divide the society and the army, all charges that have been brought before repeatedly when other respected media sources like the Dawn Group or the Jang Group voiced independent views.
But there is an even more curious statement. The Army alleges that the Tehrik-e Taliban (TTP) were out to target the journalist, with a threat letter evident, which seems to have lead to his departure from the country. Why the TTP would want to target him is surprising.
Earlier governments accused the TTP of killing Benazir Bhutto. It seems it is, apart from its rather remarkable qualities, of great use as a stalking horse, who can be blamed for a lot of sins. The rest of the conference, had the DG ISI calling out every single nefarious act of the Imran Khan government including the reference to ‘neutral and janwar'- a condemnable statement by Khan about the army.
Fault Lines Deepen Between Khan and Pak Army
An even more surprising fact emerged. Imran Khan had offered Gen Bajwa a ‘lucrative offer’ for an extension of his tenure at the height of the ‘No-confidence motion’ ruckus. He refused. That’s damnable in itself. Worse, he tried his level best to get ‘backdoor’ talks but to no avail. All of that should show the people that their idol has feet of clay. The trouble? He's just won big in Punjab, in what for the army, is a humiliating show of support from the people.
In effect, Imran has been shamed in public, and by no less, a person than the DG ISI who has so far remained very properly in the sidelines, and loyal to his chief. Clearly, the slander and mockery has been pushed too far, and what’s more (almost) every word rings true. The discordant note? That one of the most non-violent of men, Manzoor Pashteen head of the peaceful Pashtun rights movement, is to be arrested for ‘anti-army’ statements at a conference.
All he did was – as before – call for an end and inquiry into enforced disappearances, but it showed up the state for what it was – heavy handed on any discord.
A second issue is that the situation is made worse by the incompetence of the present government. Shahbaz Sharif is clearly being manipulated from London, and ministers are falling by the day. Law Minister Azam Tarar offering his resignation most recently,ostensibly due to anti-army slogans raised from the crowd at the very same conference. The reality is that he’s being pressured to favour certain judges to the highest court.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sharif dodders from crisis to crisis. At a public event, he thanked the Army Chief, the Director General of Military Operations, and others for delivering Pakistan from the clutches of the Financial Action Task Force, in front of the civilian leadership. That would have been embarrassing for all, including US negotiators who received Bajwa on his recent visit.
In sum, as Khan prepares for his grand march, he's likely to find the people even more on his side than ever, disbelieving everything that the army says, and with nothing but contempt for the present lot. But there’s no denying he’s on dangerous ground with such powerful enemies. His advantage? They’ve got nothing on him barring the sale of a few trumpery gifts.
It’s a hard lesson for South Asian leadership. Keep your nose clean and take on the dragons, khaki or otherwise. Meanwhile, its those khaki dragons who are in trouble. Their fangs may just get drawn if as it seems, Khan emerges victorious from the march. Now that is something that is truly unprecedented. Watch this space.
(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.)
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