Pakistan Protests: As Imran Khan Goes Rogue, Will the Army Step in?
Imran Khan is on the road, and his dedicated fans are determined to follow him to death, or to the next elections.
It was bedlam in the Red Zone. As the professional cricketer turns even further into a professional street thug, there seems to be no saying what will happen next. Imran Khan is on the road, and his dedicated fans are determined to follow him to death, or, more likely, to the next round of polls. Things are rapidly getting out of control, and Shehbaz Sharif, the unfortunate consensus Prime Minister of Pakistan, is not showing up well. The main question on everyone’s lips is, as always, will the men in khaki step in? Not if they can help it. But it may well be out of their hands.
Things are rapidly getting out of control as ousted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and his dedicated fans take to the streets. The main question on everyone’s lips is, will the men in khaki step in?
Khan’s strategy is forcing in elections before he is confronted with that bane of all politicians – a slowly diminishing crowd. Khan has given an ultimatum for fresh elections in six days.
If chaos breaks out in the threatened six days, the Army will have no option but to step in. No one will want to head a country sliding towards a complete breakdown, the Army least of all.
King Khan – the Strategy
Khan’s ignominious exit, resisting a no-confidence motion, should have deterred most men from trying again. But not Khan. Screaming vengeance, he was back on the streets, peddling his pet theory of conspiracy, a line of argument calculated to raise the hackles of any self-respecting Pakistani.
The conspiracy theory has got further elaborated in an interview with CNN, where he had the temerity to ask for the dismissal of Donald Lu, US Undersecretary of State, for ‘arrogance’ and ‘bad manners’ in allegedly demanding from the Pakistani ambassador that the Prime Minister be got rid of.
Worse, though he states that this took place on 7 March, with the no-confidence motion being filed the next day, he was unable to answer why he did not mention this until he was nearing his exit, a fact that did not escape the TV anchor’s notice.
But He Is Being Believed
But the point here is this: he is being believed. All his jalsas have drawn huge crowds, and his march to Islamabad has drawn even more people, with the bravos pelting ahead of their leader into the streets. But it’s not just the conspiracy theories that are fueling this outrage. Khan’s allegations that 60 per cent of the Cabinet is on bail, including Prime Minister Shehbaz and his son, on corruption charges, ring true. After all, the reams of charges against them – including against Nawaz Sharif sitting hale and hearty in England after running away on fraud medical issues – are all in the public sphere.
At the time, the ‘authorities’ (read Army), furious with the Sharifs for trying to cut them down to size and trying to make up with India, chose to bring out every single allegation into the public sphere, together with extensive television discussions, etc, all of which made sure that every last person knew about the charges involving billions of rupees. Think of the outrage when the public is struggling with severe inflation, power cuts and general decay.
None of that is proved. But it has become virtual truth. Now, it’s all in reverse gear. The Army doesn’t want Khan in the least, given his inconsistency (he is the original ‘U-turn’ man), the public collision over the appointment of the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and his making an enemy of the Saudis first and now the US.
Will Khan Be Back?
Since its inception, Islamabad gets onto the frontlines only after the approval of the ‘powers that be’. That seems to have been given, according to sources, despite the government – after consultation with Nawaz – agreeing to let the PTI have its way. The security forces were let loose, with the Army being called in to protect the Red Zone. Mayhem followed, and one and all criticised the action against the democratic right of protest, as television channels streamed the chaos.
Khan, who had been condemned severely for his mishandling of almost everything while in office, suddenly became the ‘saviour’ of the nation, even as social media flamed up in his support, and shared images showed overwhelming crowds.
Amid all this, Khan – no novice likely to shrink at street violence – called off the dharna, much to the mystification of his supporters. By then, five PTI workers had died, when Khan gave an ultimatum for fresh elections in six days and promised to be back with the ‘whole country’. That is not entirely an exaggeration. He’ll be back. And all Shehbaz Sharif has in his corner is a promised address to the nation and a brave face in Parliament. It’s simply not enough.
The Real Goal Is to Force in Elections
Khan’s strategy is simplicity itself. He has to force in elections before he is confronted with that bane of all politicians – a slowly diminishing crowd. He also needs to ensure enough mayhem so that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) remains hesitant to bail out the government in an economic crisis. He has called for Army families to join his march, and he seems to have some backing within the military.
Seasoned observers opine that the military – or a part of it – is probably backing him and wants to pressure the government into going in for massive economic reforms – which are likely to be so hugely unpopular that no one in their right minds will ever vote in a Sharif or a Bhutto again. For the military, a squabbling coalition with parts of it being remotely controlled by Nawaz Sharif from London is worse than an Imran Khan, who, at the minimum, has the courage to remain in Pakistan. Apart from that, he is honest. No one can really make a case against him for personal corruption.
India Shouldn't Be Taken In By Khan's Praise
At any rate, the alternative is dangerous. If chaos breaks out in the threatened six days, the Army will have no option but to step in. No one in their right minds will want to head a country rapidly sliding towards a complete breakdown, the Army least of all. That’s also why Nawaz Sharif was right in warning against the no-confidence motion; far better to have let Khan take the rap for a near collapse than rampaging on the streets.
Meanwhile, Indian media should not be taken in by Khan’s praise of the Modi government for its independent foreign policy and lowering of fuel prices. All he is trying to do is turn the spotlight on India as a holdout and rebel in the US-led tirade against Russia.
All said and done, Khan knows whom to pitch to – or into. At the time of writing this article, things can only get worse. After all, Khan could become the Prime Minister again. The country had better tighten its belt, even if it’s a khaki one.
(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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