Hardly a month after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s contentious Moscow visit, his government has been beset by the worst political crisis of his tenure. An alliance of around a dozen opposition parties, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), tabled a no-confidence motion against the premier which was to be voted out in the parliament on April 3.
Instead of facing the vote, the motion was dismissed by the house on the basis of an alleged foreign hand behind it. Khan then dissolved the National Assembly, which meant early elections within 90 days. The Supreme Court of Pakistan however, nullified the dismissal of the motion and reinstated the government. The voting will be reenacted. Khan attempted to conclude the no-confidence move on an anti-climax, when he pinned the constitutionally mandated revolt on a foreign conspiracy involving the United States’ interest in toppling his government and claimed that the National Security Council (NSC) was onboard with him with this revelation.
He waived a letter in a massive public rally, purportedly sent by a Pakistani diplomat in the US, conveying America’s support for the no-confidence motion, and the threat of somewhat dire consequences for Pakistan in case of its failure. Although denied by the US State Department, the Pakistan government stressed that the letter was caused by Khan’s independent choice of visiting Russia in February.
Khan is not the first Pakistani head in Moscow, but his visit has antagonized the US at a time when daggers are drawn between NATO and Putin, as well as it reified Islamabad’s comprehension regarding its historical strategic partnership with Washington, that mainly surfaced when the asymmetric partnership, soured in the later years of the War on Terror in Afghanistan. The narrative of independent foreign policy was enthusiastically advanced by Khan.
But, the authenticity of the letter does not solve the question of Khan’s legitimacy as the prime minister of Pakistan. Firstly, the concept of sovereignty is an abstract in the Third World. Developing nations suffer from a dependency problem due to which they are always in need of western assistance, submitting their sovereignty to the donor countries and International Financial Institutions (IFIs). Secondly, the social and parliamentary dissent against Khan predates the alleged conspiracy. The opposition parties have been attempting to dismiss the government time and again. Thirdly, the PTI government faces serious allegations of election rigging with the help of the country’s powerful military and now is accused of the constitution’s desecration after dissolving the parliament while a no-confidence motion was tabled.
When Khan himself said that another BJP government in India would be easy to deal with, before Narendra Modi’s second term in office, surely he was not hatching a conspiracy.
While many struggle to believe in Khan’s story, considering it his last attempt to steer out of the crisis, the US’s interventions in developing countries’ internal politics is no peculiarity. The CIA would not remember the number of coups it staged in the developing world. Just recently, the US threatened New Delhi of consequences in case it violates sanctions on Russia through bilateral trade. Washington’s exasperation over Ukraine indicates that the connotations of the said letter may very well have gotten through in a diplomatic interaction. Or, it could just be an informal expression of the Biden administration’s general dislike of the current regime in Pakistan. When Khan himself said that another BJP government in India would be easy to deal with, before Narendra Modi’s second term in office, surely he was not hatching a conspiracy.
Therefore, Pakistan’s dependency is not hinged on Khan’s ouster as he likes to imply. Just in February this year, the PTI passed a major amendment in the State Bank of Pakistan Act to meet the International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditionalities. The amendment affords worrisome autonomy to the prime monetary agency of the country, insulating it from the elected parliament. Pakistan’s dependency problem is historical and it does not come and go with prime ministers. Khan’s National Security Advisor admitted that Pakistan does not have independent economic planning. Chants of sovereignty are hardly anything more than rhetorical.
The PTI failed at delivering on its promises with record high inflation, budget cuts in health and education, corruption scandals of the premier’s close aides and coalitions with the corrupt elite. With a dented accountability narrative, Khan resorted to fierce cultural anti-imperialism. He passionately denounced Islamophobia, but used his cultural critique as a means to provoke religious sentiment against his political foes. Ascribing all the virtuosity in the world to himself, he pronounced the opposition an enemy of Islam and Pakistan. The UN recently adopted a resolution against Islamophobia. Khan’s cult fanbase deems the resolution the single most successful feat of his reign — something so great that they are indifferent to his failures on the governance front. But it is important to see whether Khan’s anti-imperialist rant is consistent enough?
Khan would lambast foreign loans, and the next day, seek more of them. He would lecture on sovereignty and then fail to attend a summit in Malaysia under Saudi pressure. In the rally where he unravelled the ‘Lettergate’, the PM recalled how former Pakistani Premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto faced a similar situation in the 1970s. Bhutto too produced a letter as proof of a foreign hand behind the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) movement against him. He has made mentions of other Third World cases where western conspiracies were involved in other appearances. But, is Khan a classic case of an anti-American Third World leader?
While delivering extempore roasts in the UN General Assembly, he may inhibit split sides as the likes of Hugo Chavez and Jamal Abdul, but he is the one who helplessly implemented foreign monetary plans and called it a success. He turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s own apartheids by ignoring the problem of enforced disappearances. He supported religious extremism against the former government and appeased the Pakistani Taliban when in power. He lacked the required majority but still made the government by sharing power with parts of the same elite he set out to crusade against. He exploited religious sentiments and has unleashed an onslaught of treason allegations on whoever disagrees with him in the expected early elections. He tried to appropriate Islam and anti-imperialism to cling to power.
Khan’s National Security Advisor admitted that Pakistan does not have independent economic planning. Chants of sovereignty are hardly anything more than rhetorical.
The current crisis has also demystified the cracks between Khan and the military top brass. The rift which started heralding with the change of the country’s spy chief last year, against Khan’s will, came to the fore when the Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa in an Islamabad conference, clearly condemned the invasion of Ukraine. The chief emphasized the historical partnership between Pakistan and the US, stating that Islamabad is not for ‘camp politics’ with an intention to keep good relations with everyone. This was while the PM of the country accused the US of engineering a domestic revolt against his government. The military has signalled its dissociation with Khan’s adventures, and claimed neutrality in the ongoing parliamentary feud, despite supporting him previously.
The outright isolation in the domestic scene does add credibility to Khan’s story of a foreign conspiracy, but fails to establish that Khan’s presence would translate into sovereignty. His narratives of independent foreign policy and accountability stood inconsistent, while he presided over the autocratic practice of the state. His attempts to retain power lately have made the Ukraine issue a detachable part of the domestic scene. For the first time in Pakistan, the intended elections are expected to center around grandiose foreign policy debates, very unlike a Third World country with a poverty ratio of over 39 percent.
It is not clear yet if there will be elections, and how Khan would still use the treason card against his adversaries, after the Supreme Court’s ruling. As per the record, he would not shy away from irredeemably polarizing a society already stricken with extremism. Pakistan grapples with real Third World problems. It will be a tragedy if a leader like Imran Khan gets away with his failures and tyrannies, hiding behind his half-baked grasp of western hegemony.
The writer is an independent analyst and teaches Government and Politics at Bahria University, Islamabad. He has a postgraduate degree in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan. He tweets @HamrazSarwani