According to some analysts, Imran Khan is unstoppable because the Miltablishment has levelled the field and carpeted the road for him to the prime minister’s office in Islamabad. His stars are apparently aligned, his foes are divided and disarrayed and “electables” are cantering to his stables. The Supreme Court has gone after his main rival, Nawaz Sharif, all guns blazing. If his prospects are thus bright in the Punjab, the outlook in Karachi and rural Sindh is not bad. The MQM factions are at each other’s throats, dividing the ethnic vote, and giving him a foothold by default. The Miltablishment is also working overtime to stitch up an alliance or seat adjustment formula between the PTI and disparate anti-PPP and anti-PMLN elements in rural Sindh in order to make Khan a player in the Sindh assembly. As far as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is concerned, no fears. Notwithstanding Khattak’s corruption and Gulalai’s rage, its angry, idealistic youth still love the Teflon Man.
Alas. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Nawaz Sharif’s iqama disqualification that turned on a seriously deficient definition of taxable income has, unfortunately, undermined the credibility of the SC. The angry and overtly political response to the review petition has underscored the perception of bias. The appointment of a judge who penned the original anti-“Godfather” judgment as the presiding judge in the Hudaibiya case was an embarrassing sign of pre-ordained “justice”, its quick reversal an abject acknowledgment of it no less. The unholy gallop of the NAB courts against the Sharifs, compared to the walk-the-talk of the SC with Imran Khan and Jehangir Tareen, is equally deserving of negative comment. All this explains why Nawaz Sharif is still milking the Iqama factor for sympathy and even a mountain of evidence of wrong doing in the Hudaibiya case may not dent his legitimacy and popularity.
Then there is the matter of the case against Imran Khan. Everyone knows that if the SC were to adjudge it on the yardstick of Iqama it would be curtains for him. But if he is let off the hook on the basis of different standards of justice, Nawaz’s case in the eyes of the people would be strengthened. Indeed, his stock might rise if he is imprisoned – at least that’s the lesson of history when imprisonment or exile of popular leaders by unaccountable individuals or institutions is perceived as victimization – and the PMLN will reap the dividend in the next elections. Disqualification of both leaders would even the scales of justice and redeem the SC. It might even please the Miltablishment to be rid of two loose cannons while getting a freer hand to manipulate the malleable leadership waiting in the wings of the two mainstream parties. Indeed, this “solution” would facilitate a similar targeting of Asif Zardari by reopening old corruption cases and speed-tracking them to desired ends. After all, the Miltablishment is still hooked to the nexus between “corruption and terrorism” in Sindh that it first articulated three years ago and still determined to nail it for all times to come.
Consider, too, the implications of Nawaz Sharif’s resolve to stand and fight the Miltablishment against the advice of his brother and heir apparent Shahbaz Sharif. The Miltablishment has offered a deal: stop resisting, melt away into quiet exile and let Shahbaz lead the party in exchange for a partial reprieve for daughter Maryam and go-slow in the NAB cases against the family. But Nawaz has spurned the offer. This means that the Miltablishment must either step up the pressure in palpably painful or distasteful ways or retreat and leave Nawaz’s fate in the wobbly hands of the judiciary and uncertain affections of the people. The latter option is not a particularly appetizing one for a self-righteous Miltablishment bent on social and political engineering. But there is also a legal and political limit to the powers of the Miltablishment that is shy of seizing power directly and afraid of reaping the whirlwind of domestic and international opposition.
Everyone is looking at the next general elections in this context. Imran Khan’s demand for an early election is mere pressure tactics. In actual fact, his KP CM Pervez Khattak has just signed on in the CCI with the other mainstream parties for elections much later on due date. Similarly, everyone has agreed to delimitation of constituencies on the basis of the new census, which means elections not a day before due date. In other words, it has dawned on everyone that, while Nawaz should be downed and outed, they must not rock the boat so much that the Miltablishment can find an excuse to seize the electoral process, delay the elections and engineer a political geography without them.
Clearly, therefore, it is the people who will eventually decide who is stoppable and who is not. And that is the way it should be.