In an extraordinary press conference, DG-ISPR Maj-Gen Babar Iftikhar has finally set the record straight.
(1) There was no US conspiracy for regime change in Pakistan. Thus the response of the National Security Committee to the “letter” of the Pakistan Ambassador to Washington purporting a “conspiracy” deserved no more than the usual “demarche”.
(2) The Americans have never demanded military bases in Pakistan, so the response of “Absolutely Not” was misplaced.
(3) Imran Khan, not the military leadership, proposed a discussion on his political options going forward.
(4) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, COAS, does not seek an extension in service and will refuse any if offered.
(5) The army wants to be apolitical, it supports the constitutional process and “there will never be any martial law”.
(6) The social media campaign against the army is unacceptable and there will be consequences.
(7) The attempt to sow division and discord in institutions will not succeed.
This “extraordinary” response follows some extraordinary events in March. Shorn of Miltablishment props, Imran Khan’s government fell because his allies switched sides in anticipation of elections in which the PTI was forecast to lose. But, instead of bowing out gracefully, Khan violated every rule in the book to hang on to office, requiring the Supreme Court to send him packing in the dead of night. Now he is on the election trail, sticking to his “conspiracy” theories and exhorting his supporters to attack the military high command for ditching him.
Naturally, his oppositionists are delighted. The more he attacks the Miltablishment, the less likely it will countenance his “return” at any time in the near future.
Equally significantly, the Miltablishment is licking its wounds from the abject failure of its “hybrid project” and will likely let politics take its rowdy constitutional course until the politicians create another gridlock in it. For sure, Khan wants a military intervention to make sure the PDM government is short lived.
Meanwhile, can we write off Imran Khan?
No. He is still drawing passionate crowds in support of his “narrative” – “I am Mr Clean. The oppositionists are crooks. The US and Western powers are against me because I oppose Islamophobia and want to build a sovereign Pakistan along the lines of the state of Medina in the time of the Prophet of Islam (PBUH)”.
But if this “narrative” is demonstrably false or unproven, why are so many people still buying it?
Most PTI supporters are “children” of General Zia ul Haq. They were nurtured in nurseries of Islamic nationalism that continue to churn out clones. They are relatively young, middle-class, urban, “purra-likha” types, therefore more likely to succumb to conspiracy theories because of access to the internet where such ideas take root and spread like wildfire. Since the military and bureaucracy largely source recruitment from such classes, it is understandable that “civil-military” families (serving and retired) are strong supporters of this narrative. Overseas Pakistanis also highly susceptible, partly because of daily confrontations with Islamophobia and racism and partly because of “dual national” split identities that demand “respect” for their Islamic “practices” in secular societies, craving for “homeland” Pakistan and “honour” and “equality” in resident countries. Proliferating social media groups and twitter spaces of like-minded Khan cultists reinforce common prejudices and beliefs.
But there is another aspect to this development. Many such people are also inclined to “reject” dull dynastic politics that doesn’t deliver the goods. The PPP and PMLN have paraded the same aging faces and tired status-quo policies for thirty years. We see this phenomena across the world where political dynasties are crumbling before rising “populism” and “cultish” leaders preying on youthful, restless, disgruntled populations. In the same vein, alienated, confused, insecure, “proud” Pakistanis at home and abroad have flocked to Imran Khan because he offers hope of “change” – never mind what sort of change — from the stifling socio-political status quo, despite the rising cost of living in “Naya” Pakistan. Does this mean that Imran Khan’s PTI can win the elections if these are held soon?
No. There is another Pakistan that retains a strong vested interest in traditional leaders and parties, especially in the rural areas and small towns where notions of “change” are still weak. The PPP and PMLN are still considered “mainstream” parties because they have dug deep organizational, social and political roots and created vested interests in large swathes of the country during their intermittent bouts in office. This will matter because significant numbers who voted for Imran Khan in 2018 will not vote for him now because his economic mismanagement has imposed unbearable hardships on them or because they may slowly become aware of the dangerous consequences and implications of his narrative. Therefore Khan’s diminished vote bank will not be able to push him past the post.
One can therefore understand his current strategy. He wants to destablise the current hotchpotch regime so that it cannot deliver any pro-people agenda. His rallies are aimed at vitalizing his supporters in the aftermath of his demoralizing exit. His insistence on sticking to his “narrative” despite the evidence against it is based on the simple fact of propaganda that if one repeats a lie a hundred times, it tends to become the “truth”.
But one should not underestimate the relevance and power of competing truths. Soon, there will be a flood of powerful truths about his own corruptions and party’s misdemeanours. The “ToshaKhana” thefts will pale in comparison to the embezzlements of billions from donations when the Foreign Funding Case is concluded against him next month. To follow: Ring Road Pindi, RaviTown, Malam Jabba, Corona 19 funds, BRT Peshawar, First Lady Family-and- Friends kickbacks and commissions in Punjab, etc., etc. His party is also likely to face a crackdown that will test the loyalty and commitment of its leaders, organizers and propagandists, something they have never experienced in their short political life in the safe care of the Miltablishment. Indeed, Imran Khan’s main reason for demanding immediate elections is the fear that his support base will wane when its passion is dissipated by time and countervailing truth.
The current regime led by the PDM is thus in the grip of two opposing tensions. If it opts for early elections, it might face a fair challenge from Imran Khan because his supporters are still kicking dust. If it delays the polls but is unable to deliver and is discredited, it will revive his option. In that case, the Miltablishment will be compelled to go back to the drawing board again to substantiate the circular history of Pakistan.
Regardless of all that is going on at the moment, there is one silver lining:
For the first time, perhaps in the history of Pakistan, the Bog Boots are on the defensive. May be Nawazman started it and Khanman’s sidekicks flamed it, but the Big Boots are having to stomach criticism which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
May be then, very longer term, with Gen Z and technology taking over, the Big Boots may just end up as any other army institution!
To understand Imran’s continuing support we need to understand cult psychology. Rational arguments even straightforward evidence will not do. But if a carefully created counter narrative is worked upon highlighting the possible consequences of what IK is doing might work. But both PMLN and PPP seem unequiped for such a response.
IK’s foreign conspiracy narrative was built in haste and only got traction with the minority of voting public. According to Gallup snap poll 60% did not consider opposition to be a party to a conspiracy. The minority of voters that considered this narrative is becoming unsure as the focus has shifted back to “failures of PTI to govern”. For wisened up voters/electables in the forthcoming 4th general election in a row (unheard of in our history) this would be the foremost concern.
Najam sethi sahib your analysis is really awesome.