Last November, pundits were counting the weeks for regime change. Six months later, they fear we are stuck with Imran Khan for a long time. What’s happened to radically change their perspective, especially since the popular motive for wanting to get rid of him – indecision, crisis mismanagement, vindictiveness, policy confusion – has progressively strengthened in the meanwhile?
Everyone knows that regime change in Pakistan cannot happen without the active involvement of the Miltablishment. In November it was a foregone conclusion that the matter of an extension was settled, so there was nothing to stop it from blocking regime change in the following months. That’s why the long march to Islamabad by Maulana Fazal ur Rahman appeared as a dramatic first step in that direction. It was inconceivable, they argued, that the good Maulana would have dared undertake such an enterprise without a wink from the Miltablishment. But then the unthinkable happened: the Supreme Court stepped in and slapped a six month question mark on the extension issue. That meant that the Plan, if there was one, had to be postponed until this matter was finally resolved.
We are nearing the end of that period now. It is anybody’s guess whether or not the SC will open the case this month and seek confirmation from the government that the law has been suitably amended to legitimize the extension. Until then, the Miltablishment can take no chances and must remain unequivocally on the right side of Imran Khan, regardless of any provocations, frustrations, delinquencies, transgressions, offenses, infringements or lapses on the part of the PM and his team.
If this is not an Einsteinian deduction, then we may presume that Imran Khan and his political advisors are also aware of it. So this may explain why they are still pushing their agendas even at the risk of annoying the Miltablishment. An ironic comfort for the government is provided by the unexpected COVID-19 crisis: regime change in the midst of a war – and this COVID-19 is a deadly national opponent – is strictly no-no. Continuing hostilities on the eastern border with India that could precipitate a national crisis at any time, depending on the need of Narendra Modi to distract attention from his domestic woes, has made the Miltablishment even more wary of regime change in such circumstances.
Thus Imran Khan has been making his own counter moves on the chessboard. When there was talk of some sort of “deal” in the offing between the Miltablishment and the Sharifs for regime change, he put a spoke in the wheel by stopping Maryam Nawaz from joining her father abroad, arresting party stalwarts, and launching corruption cases against Shahbaz Sharif and his sons. When the Sindh Chief Minister, Murad Ali Shah, was earning kudos for following the Miltablishment’s lockdown advice, the PM sent in his hounds to sic him and derail his policies. When the Miltablishment nudged the PM to reconcile with and manage the media better in the national interest, he ordered the arrest of Mir Shakil ur Rahman and beefed up PEMRA to do his bidding. Now he has made bold to turn his guns on the Chaudhries of Gujrat even though they hold the balance of the PTI government in the Punjab. Why is that?
Everyone knows the inspiration behind Usman Buzdar’s appointment as CM Punjab. Everyone also knows that the PM has resisted advice from the Miltablishment to change him for the sake of better governance in the core province. Indeed, when the Miltablishment toyed with Aleem Khan for the position, Imran Khan swiftly put him into prison. The Miltablishment changed tack, agreeing instead to key bureaucratic changes to run the province. But when Aleem Khan returned to the Provincial Assembly to stake his claim, Imran Khan sent the Miltablishment’s blue eyed bureaucrats – CS and IGP –packing and installed his own pro-Buzdar “team”. At every stage, the Chaudhries have jockeyed for more power in the Punjab, even flirting with the opposition outside the Assembly and being soft on them inside it. Now the pressure to change CM Buzdar has increased. So Imran Khan has decided to dangle the sword of Damocles on the head of the Chaudhries by digging up a dead case from 2000 so that they should stop conspiring for the coveted position. This is killing two birds with one stone. He is stopping them in their tracks while sending out a message to his loyal followers that he is also holding the corrupt within his ranks accountable rather than only victimizing the opposition. This is gamesmanship.
To be sure, the Miltablishment’s political options for regime change have been severely circumscribed by the refusal of the PMLN to do a “deal” with it that shuts the door irrevocably on Nawaz and Maryam Sharif and allows Shahbaz Sharif to “work” with the Miltablishment “in the national interest”. Equally, though, we may be sure that once the Rubicon has been crossed in May, all the political players in the country will become more alive to the necessity for change one way or another.