Last week Imran Khan threatened to become “dangerous if pushed to the wall”. In his latest broadside against the high command of the Pakistan Army for being “neutral” — another word for “animals” in his book — he has been true to his word.
“Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif want to appoint a new army chief in November”, he thundered a few days ago, “one who will be their ‘favourite’, because they have stolen money, they are afraid that if a strong and merited army chief, a patriotic army chief, arrives on the scene, he will hold them accountable, and it is this fear that is compelling them to hang on till November and appoint their ‘favourite’ as the next army chief”.
Imran Khan wants immediate elections that he thinks he will win so that he can appoint his own ‘favourite’ as army chief next November and then join forces with him and eliminate the Zardaris and Sharifs from the face of Pakistan. In fact, this has always been his agenda and this is what got him into trouble last year with the army high command when he insisted on retaining his ‘favourite’ general as head of the ISI so that the agency could be used to fulfil his ambitions.
Mr Khan’s latest assault on the high command of the Pakistan army has shattered a red barrier. Earlier, he was focused on attacking the person of COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa for becoming “neutral” and not saving him from a vote of no confidence by the opposition parties that removed him from office last April. Now he is saying that whosoever is appointed as army chief by the PDM government in November is bound to be unmerited and unpatriotic. Thus, in one fell swoop, he has condemned the top generals of the Pakistan army eligible to become army chief as potentially unpatriotic and unmerited since any one of them will be appointed to the coveted post and will automatically be the object of Mr Khan’s wrath.
There is, of course, a method in Mr Khan’s madness. His current nemesis, General Bajwa, has been warned not to seek another extension if he wants to escape the PTI’s wrath. In the same bad breath, the next man – whosoever he may – has already been brought under pressure to prove his “patriotic and merited” credentials by siding with Mr Khan in his battle royale against the Sharifs and Zardaris.
The ISPR spokesman of the Pakistan Army is “aghast” at Mr Khan’s “defamatory” and “uncalled for” remarks. It “regrets” the attempt to undermine the army leadership by “stirring controversy” by an “unfortunate” and “disappointing” statement.
A softer critique could not have been crafted. In a different time and context, the offending politician would have been hauled up under the Army Act, 1952, and court martialed under a clutch of criminal charges, and the keys to the locker thrown away. But in this case, there was disagreement among Miltablishment generals about whether and how to respond to the provocation. Some wanted a hard statement while some wanted to shunt the response to the government. In the end, a whimper shushed out from the ISPR late in the night.
“Who me?”, asked Imran Khan mockingly, “what did I say wrong?” He knows he has successfully breached the unity of the Miltablishment and will pile pressure on any institution that doesn’t bend before him, especially the judiciary and Election Commission of Pakistan. But his lieutenants like Arif Alvi, Asad Omar, Shah Mahmud Qureshi, etc, have all distanced themselves from his diatribe, even going so far as to say with a straight face that they haven’t heard or read his statement.
Now Imran Khan has demanded immediate general elections and thrown the gauntlet to Nawaz Sharif. “I am waiting for you”, he roared at a rally recently, “come and fight me”. This suggests that something significant is afoot.
Why are the Miltablishment and courts still soft on Imran Khan when he has crossed so many red barriers? Why aren’t the Toshakhana, Foreign Funding and terrorism cases against Khan on a go-slow track? Why is he demanding immediate elections and insisting the PDM government go home before November? Why are Ishaq Dar and Nawaz Sharif reported to be readying to return to Pakistan? Why , after four years, is Maryam Nawaz applying to get her passport back from the Islamabad High Court so that she can travel to London? Why is Khan warning of a conspiracy by “Mr X and Mr Y” to oust the PTI government in Punjab?
Despite loud denials by Imran Khan, President Arif Alvi has confirmed that secret efforts are afoot to bring the PDM and PTI to the negotiating table in order to pull the country out of conflict mode and restore political and economic stability. Obviously, this can only be at the behest of the Miltablishment. What sort of Pindi Plan is on offer that provides rough answers to the questions raised above?
If the PDM government is persuaded to dissolve parliament in October and order general elections in January 2023, the caretakers appointed by agreement between Khan and Sharif can appoint the next army chief in November by mutual consent. That would fulfil Khan’s two demands. In exchange, the playing field would be levelled by allowing Nawaz Sharif to return and lead the PMLN, the Punjab government would be handed over to the PDM by a swift shift of the PMLQ from the PTI to the PMLN and a condition imposed on Khan, Sharif and Zardari to dissolve their respective provincial governments in KP, Sindh and Punjab when the federal government is dissolved. Before the PDM dissolves the federal PDM government would be entitled to disburse a significant economic relief package for voters disgruntled by IMF-dictated hardship policies that have made it unpopular. Thus a level playing field could be created that would enable a fair election to be held next year, notwithstanding any delays necessitated by circumstances.
Of course, it’s a tall order. The protagonists hate and distrust one another. But the Miltablishment has a political noose around the neck of each. The PDM is ready to play ball. If Khan defies the logic, the noose will get tighter. Resolutions must be effected before November 29. Otherwise the default setting of the Pindi Plan will be triggered and Khan could be the biggest loser.