The troubled innings of a Pakistan Prime Minister

Imran Khan | Photo Credit: AFP

Imran Khan promised to end Pakistan’s tryst with ‘corrupt’ and ‘dynastic’ politicians. He insisted that his government would restore Pakistan’s sovereignty, breaking the International Monetary Fund (IMF) begging bowl forever, and never again acceding to the role of frontline state in ‘America’s wars’. He prided himself as a born-again Muslim who would free Pakistani society from the vice-like grip of a decadent western pop culture.

The army has the reins

In the end, it was the proverbial elephant in the room that he dared not name — Pakistan’s pre-eminent political-economic force, the army — that ended his prime ministerial crusade. Mr. Khan may have been formally deposed through a Supreme Court-assisted vote of no-confidence in Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament in early April, but it is an open secret that his fall came after falling foul of the army’s top brass which, less than four years earlier, had facilitated his ascent to the country’s top elected office. It is said that the generals had planned for Mr. Khan to be in power for two consecutive five-year terms; as it turned out, their patience ran out even before the end of the first one.

There is nothing novel about a Pakistani Prime Minister going out kicking and screaming having lost favour with the army. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his daughter Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif, among others, have all suffered a similar fate. With the exception of the nine-year military regime of General Pervez Musharraf, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs had alternated stints in government for the best part of 30 years before Mr. Khan’s ascension as Prime Minister in 2018. On each occasion, they had agreed to uneasy power-sharing arrangements with the army, only for the army to subsequently engineer their unceremonious downfall.

Imran Khan was supposed to be different. A cricket World Cup-winning captain with no political lineage, he represented the perfect foil for unelected apparatuses of the state that, in the revered colonial tradition, vilified politics while eulogising ‘clean and efficient’ administrative order. When the Musharraf dictatorship collapsed in 2008 under the weight of its own contradictions, ushered out by a lawyer-led street movement, Mr. Khan’s grooming by the military establishment began in earnest.

In 2013, his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party acquired governmental power for the first time in war-torn Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. While victory was formally secured at the ballot box, the establishment joined the fray by cajoling ‘electables’ — constituency-level politicians whose primary objective is to sit on the treasury benches — into joining the PTI. By the time the next general election rolled around in 2018, the PTI had enough electables in its ranks to cobble together a coalition, and with it the reins of the federal government.

Demographic factors

Yet, the PTI’s rise cannot be explained only by the machinations of the unelected apparatuses of state. Pakistan’s urbane, educated classes have always been enamoured by strong men who promise to clean the Augean stables. Generals and judges were the archetype, but Imran Khan fit the bill even better.

The messiah complex around Imran Khan’s persona was greatly enabled by both demographic and technological change. Almost two-thirds of Pakistan’s over 220 million people are below the age of 29. This majority has come of age as digitalisation has transformed political communication. Able and willing to articulate their political preferences beyond the constraints of socially entrenched patronage networks, many young people believed in the hype around Mr. Khan’s persona. These tech-savvy and often militant supporters used social media platforms to propagate the PTI as a genuine alternative to status quo in a manner not dissimilar to other contemporary right-wing populists as diverse as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump.

A waning

For the first three years after Imran Khan became Prime Minister, the army played along. The combination of digitally mobilised PTI supporters and the state’s own propaganda machinery translated into ever intensifying censorship of the media, progressive intellectuals and people’s movements, as well as the two main Opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N). But dissenting voices refused to go away, while the PTI government predictably made concession after concession to big business — including the army-run ones — and after reneging on its rhetoric about foreign aid, acceded completely to the IMF’s arm-twisting. The Opposition was thus able to stoke public discontent, particularly in the dominant Punjab province where former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif teleconferenced hard-hitting speeches from the comfortable confines of self-exile in London.

Yet, given the long leash he had been granted, Imran Khan may still have survived, and even thrived. But the cat was set among the pigeons when, in October 2021, he refused to sign off on a summary issued by Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa notifying a new spy chief at the power Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The story goes that the Prime Minister wanted the incumbent, Lt. General Faiz Hameed, to retain his office for long enough to see the PTI through another general election. Imran Khan resisted for almost three weeks, eventually acceding to the change. But it was too late; challenging the autonomy of the army proved to be Mr. Khan’s death knell.

Shehbaz Sharif at the helm

The resulting domino effect eventually culminated in his ouster and Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother and three-time Chief Minister of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif, taking oath as the new Prime Minister. Having historically enjoyed more cordial ties with the establishment than his brother Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz Sharif will be charged with steadying the ship and getting the country through to the next general election which must take place at the latest by the summer of 2024.

But what can be done to steady a ship on permanently choppy waters? In which a bloated national security apparatus acts as an arbiter of politics; where perpetual upward redistribution of wealth implicates all major political players and an exponential debt burden, and where anti-establishment political sentiment tends largely to be captured by reactionary forces, not least of all religious militants?

Indeed, even before he was deposed, Imran Khan himself had taken a leaf out of the copybook of the religious right by exclaiming that the Opposition parties were conspiring with the United States to unseat him. The palace intrigues that followed could not save him, but his narrative of a Washington-backed regime change has persisted. Intriguingly, while Mr. Khan himself has avoided direct criticism of the army, his supporters have minced no words about the top brass’s decision to withdraw support to the PTI and instead patronise the ‘corrupt’ and ‘dynastic’ politicians that the Imran Khan phenomenon was supposed to relegate to the dustbin of history once and for all.

Thread in the neighbourhood

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Pakistan was the black sheep of South Asia. A country ruled by generals for half its existence, religion weaponised in the nooks and crannies of society to deadly effect, and a militarised economy perpetually teetering on the brink of collapse. Today, as it grapples with yet another civilian government falling out with the military establishment, Pakistan’s predicament is eerily similar to its neighbours. In Sri Lanka, a former army officer has run the country into the ground along with his strong-arm brothers, while in India the regime is ever more reliant on the violent sidelining of certain minorities even as its regime of accumulation immiserates bigger segments of a predominantly young population.

Populists thrive on the politics of hate. Imran Khan lives on, perhaps in the hope that he can once again win the favour of the army. Only when a genuinely progressive politics takes root within Pakistan’s — and, indeed, South Asia’s — youthful majority, may we expect a meaningful twist in this sordid tale.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is Associate Professor of Political Economy at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and has been affiliated with progressive political movements in Pakistan for over two decades

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Printable version | Apr 26, 2022 12:33:19 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-troubled-innings-of-a-pakistan-prime-minister/article65354503.ece