What’s next in the Imran Khan saga?
Despite his democratic removal, Khan remains popular, but faces two problems: The narrative around his ouster and the possibility of being embroiled in cases. Will he bounce back?
Six months ago, Imran Khan was comfortably placed. Pakistan’s former prime minister (PM) was on the same page as the army, and the combined Opposition was in disarray. Six months later, Khan is out of office. The “same page” narrative is in tatters; the Opposition got its act together to move a successful no-confidence motion against him. For the first time in recent memory, a Pakistan PM was democratically removed through a vote of no confidence and his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, democratically elected.
The catalyst for this remarkable turnaround was that the army (selectors) started facing flak for bringing Khan to power and supporting his incompetent government. Worse, Khan decided to meddle in army postings. In October 2021, he tried to resist army chief General Qamar Bajwa’s transfer of director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed as Corps Commander, Peshawar. This was a red line for the army that, as an institution, does not brook any interference from politicians in its internal management.
The upshot was that the army became “neutral” and cut Khan loose politically. The “same page” narrative faded and without the army’s political management, Khan’s coalition started to dissipate, converting his government to a minority. This spurred the Opposition to unite, and, sensing an opportunity, it introduced a no-confidence motion against him in the National Assembly in early March.
Faced with the prospect of being booted out since he lost his majority, Khan took recourse to several unconstitutional moves to prevent the no-confidence motion from taking place. Key among these was the allegation of an American conspiracy to remove him from office because he followed an independent foreign policy. The deputy speaker of the National Assembly used the allegation to reject the no-confidence motion. Khan then advised the President to dissolve the Assembly and call for elections which the President did. Thanks to a unanimous Supreme Court decision, the National Assembly was restored, and voting on the no-confidence motion was held.
The allegation of an American conspiracy hinged on a communication from the United States (US), supposedly warning of dire consequences if the no-confidence motion failed. The communication was actually a routine diplomatic cable sent by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington DC, based on his conversation with a US official at a farewell lunch that the ambassador hosted. Moreover, the director-general of Inter-Services Public Relations, the army spokesman, in a press conference on April 14, refuted the conspiracy theory, thus busting the central plank of Khan’s narrative.
Where does Khan go from here?
After his ouster from office, an angry Khan has gone into “container mode”, holding massive rallies in key cities such as Peshawar and Karachi and Lahore, seeking to mobilise people to force early elections. In addition, the social media cell of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has gone into overdrive, spreading the narrative of retired army officers being critical of the current army leadership for not supporting Khan. The intention is to drive a wedge between the army and the people and between army chief Bajwa and the army.
Khan’s USP in the run-up to the 2018 elections was accountability, the dream of tabdeeli (change) and of a naya (new) Pakistan that mesmerised the urban middle class and the youth. He claimed that he could fix Pakistan’s ailing economy in 90 days, promised 10 million jobs and five million homes.
In three-and-a-half years, however, the dream lay shattered due to poor governance and the dire straits the country found itself in.
There are two kinds of problems that he now faces. One is the narrative. Will he continue to harp on the American conspiracy that has struck a chord with his supporters, but one the army has debunked? Having staked all on this narrative, Khan may be forced to persist because he has no positive achievements he can showcase.
The second problem is the possibility of being embroiled in a number of cases. Given the vicious one-sided accountability he indulged in when in power, it should be no surprise when the incumbent government indulges in some accountability politics of its own. Perhaps the most serious is the 2014 foreign funding case against the PTI. Details available indicate that PTI was indeed guilty of hiding its accounts through which it received foreign funding.
Meanwhile, as Khan’s April 21 Lahore rally showed, diminishing returns are becoming apparent. His speeches have become monotonous — the same words and the same slogans — and are low on substance. He was supposed to have announced the next phase of rallies in Lahore but did not do so. He also did not call for a long march then, as was expected.
While Khan undoubtedly remains popular, his arrogance, inflated ego and treating those opposed to him as traitors, do not make for democratic politics. Large rallies and fiery speeches can enthuse his supporters for some time, but it would be difficult to sustain the momentum. It remains to be seen if, without the crutch of the “selectors”, Khan can bounce back quickly.
Tilak Devasher is an author and member, National Security Advisory Board
The views expressed are personal