No day is an easy day in Pakistani politics, especially if you have the courage to stand against the powerful military establishment of the country.
Historically, Pakistan’s military has controlled its politics from behind the curtains. Many politicians have seen the triumph of their ambitions by coddling up to the strongest institutions and many have fallen from grace in no mean times.
With Imran Khan, too, the powerful military came full circle this April when he was ousted from power after a no-confidence motion against his premiership got successful, as soon as the powers propping him up pulled back their props. He was out before he could know what hit him and then started the final round of his struggle to fight against the combined front of 14 political parties held together allegedly on the directions of the military to keep Khan at bay.
Khan, however, has proven to be no easy opponent. While traditional political supremos, like the former three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, preferred to leave the country after falling out with the military, Imran Khan decided to take the fight to them.
Unexpectedly, people across Pakistan came out to protest Khan’s ouster from politics. This must have had given him a confidence booster. “When previous prime ministers were removed, people used to distribute sweets and say prayers of thanks for deliverance. When I was removed, people across the country took to the streets in thousands to register their protests,” he has stated repeatedly.
Some of the bigger crowds were seen in Karachi and Lahore, where people chanted slogans of liberty, freedom and sacrifice. Those hair-raising scenes were an omen for Imran Khan that he still had a fight left in him — to establish civilian supremacy over the more powerful institutions of the country.
Khan gathered thousands of people at a rally in Islamabad in late March, where he claimed a US conspiracy against him, with the help of handlers at home. He expected the powerful institutions to take a stand with him against the US meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs. However, the military leadership left him high and dry. He galvanized the people in rally after rally in big cities and provincial capitals. He called out the Americans and asked them, “If we are your slaves to do your bidding every time you ask?”
During the 2018 general elections campaign, Khan apparently made extensive use of the monetary resources of the real estate tycoons and sugar barons who were allied with him. One of them Jahangir Tareen, a sugar baron, had his planes and helicopters at his disposal.
When Khan finally came to power, his benefactor, the sugar baron, got implicated in a scandal related to the price of sugar. Khan was more than happy to throw him under the bus to serve his principles. Sooner than later, Jahangir Tareen was sitting with Khan’s political nemeses.
In exactly the same manner, real estate tycoon Aleem Khan wanted Khan to give him some undue privilege, or so Khan alleges. Khan threw him under the bus, too, and Aleem Khan has been reduced to a political nobody despite Khan having enjoyed his Toyota V-8 land cruisers for his political purposes.
Khan’s goal was to liberate his country from the shackles of dependence on foreign countries and institutions; to usher in an era of justice where rich and poor are meted same judgments for similar crimes; to end corruption in the country by bringing the powerful political dynasties of Shareefs, Bhuttos and Zardaris to heel. He went after his goal like a bull in a china shop.
Imran Khan was out before he could know what hit him and then started the final round of his struggle to fight against the combined front of 14 political parties held together allegedly on the directions of the military to keep Khan at bay.
Khan trod the military’s fine line till as long as he could. However, starting in late last year he started to have disagreements with the military over the appointment of the director general of the powerful intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
What transpired in those fateful months is shrouded in mystery but the outcome has been all too evident.
Khan was out and a rag-tag coalition of 14 political parties, including Khan’s former allies who held his numbers complete in the parliament, formed the federal government. Khan felt slighted especially at the hands of military leadership. He started a campaign of reaching out to the people. The people of the country reciprocated. Rally after rally was filled with scores of thousands of people. Khan beat the message of a conspiracy at the behest of the US into the people’s minds. People ever so receptive to such controversies imbibed the message. Khan led a “long-march” on Islamabad to remove the government but called it off as soon as he reached the capital fearing that bloodshed may ensue. He went deep with his strategy of politics of resentment.
The coalition failed to deliver the results that were hoped for by the military. Inflation shot to upwards of 35 percent. International donors dried up the funds. Monsoon rains wreaked havoc across the country, bringing more trouble for the coalition government since it failed to mobilize an effective response. Khan, the bright-eyed boy of Pakistan’s social media, arranged a telethon to raise money for the flood-affected. People started to donate billions of rupees. Khan was operating like he had his own government.
Real shock for the ruling coalition came when in the Punjab by-polls Khan won 15 seats out of 20. The fortunes reversed and his government was back in power in the largest province of the country in no more than three months, which had been removed after his ousting in the center.
Imran Khan proved to his detractors in the military that he was out but not dead. And thereafter he again swept another round of by-polls held in October with more than a two-thirds majority.
And then came the final showdown.
After winning the by-polls, he again announced that he would lead a long march on the country’s capital to demand dates for fresh elections. His politicians, political workers, and journalists were constantly being harassed by the government. Two of them, Shahbaz Gill and Azam Swati, have been subjected to brutal custodial torture. Last nail in the coffin was struck by the brutal assassination of Arshad Shareef, a celebrated broadcast journalist allied with Khan, under dubious circumstance in Kenya. His death made Khan announce the dates of his final call of the long march which he has dubbed as the Haqiqi Azadi March (True Liberation March).
On the day of Arshad Shareef’s funeral in Islamabad, the cowboys behind the curtains blinked and the curtains swung open. A press conference by the DG-ISI accompanied by DG-ISPR invited mixed reactions from all sides. Clearly, Khan had struck hard on nerves of the powerful quarters, and the next day he started his Haqiqi Azadi March from Lahore to Islamabad.
Given the strategic chessboard of Pakistani politics and the position of players vis a vis each other, Khan has everybody cornered. He has entered the endgame of his 25 years’ long struggle where he has to contend with the powerful players who always remained behind the curtains. Now that the DG-ISI came on television for an almost two hour-long press conference, accusing Khan of cheap shots and doublespeak, Khan is well-poised to make the most of the nervous moves that his political and ideological opponents are going to make.
Khan started a long fight. According to DG-ISI, the military has decided for good that it will remain apolitical in the future. But the denouement of this fight has been hastened by the struggle that Khan has led to take control of the state, back from the international players to domestic ones. Khan is on his way to Islamabad with thousands of followers to pressure the government in announcing dates of the next elections. The attempt on his life injured him but could not deter him.
If all actors act in a practical and thoughtful manner this critical juncture in the country’s history could prove to be a turning point for the better. As Khan says, “Right now it is the mind-game playing. And they do not know but I am the master of the mind-game.”