Has Imran Khan taken another U-turn? He did, after all, go from criticising Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to praising his government’s foreign policy, even showing former minister S. Jaishankar’s speech at his political gathering in Lahore. But this is Im the Dim, as Khan is popularly called by his opponents, throwing a fastball to the Shehbaz Sharif government in Pakistan, with the intention of balling out both the coalition government in Islamabad and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. It is certainly a game of high stakes for all players involved — Imran Khan, the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan Army.
Imran Khan’s appreciation of India’s foreign policy ought not to be taken at face value. This is not even about India but highlighting flaws of Pakistan’s US policy. His intention was to develop on decades of anti-Americanism, built by the army itself, and to show how he has more guts than what he calls ‘imported’ politicians. His claim was that he could, just like Jaishankar, get Russian fuel at affordable rates rather than bow down to American will.
The challenge called Imran Khan
Since his removal in April this year, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman doesn’t seem to be piping down his anti-American rhetoric despite the recent news that his party had hired lobbyists in the US to improve his image. Sources in Pakistan claim that Khan was advised by elements in the army to improve relations with the US, especially if he wants to return to power. But this is where the problem lies — Khan’s populism is entirely built on either anti-corruption or, more recently, anti-Americanism. The story of American intervention in Pakistan’s politics has run parallel with populist politics — starting from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to Imran Khan. Both have laid emphasis on anti-Americanism despite their governments’ dependence on help and cooperation from Washington.
One of Khan’s many problems is that he is so tuned into domestic constituency politics, he sees foreign policy more as a ploy. His anti-Americanism and the idea of presenting himself as the only independent leader can make people rally behind him, especially the younger generation and the new voters. This gives the Sharfis, and to a lesser extent the Zardari camp, a run for their money. Today more than ever, a PML-N clean sweep in the next election seems impossible.
But this is where things get tricky for Imran Khan. While he does have support in the army, he is increasingly becoming costly for the echelons who would prefer to use the political opposition and the judiciary to show Khan the door. The rate at which the PML-N government is collecting evidence against Khan’s financial impropriety, his disqualification seems a real possibility. When this happens, the coalition government will be backed by the army.
The battle is just gathering momentum and has not reached full steam yet. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) recently presented a 70-page report on PTI’s foreign funding showing how it had concealed information about accounts and obtained finances from foreign nationals including a few Indians based abroad. But what caught attention was the $22 million it received from businessman Arif Naqvi, proprietor of Dubai-based defunct Abraaj Group who is accused of defrauding the US government as well as Bill Gates Foundation and awaits extradition to the US from the UK. There is also the toshakhana case pertaining to the former prime minister procuring gifts received as a state dignitary at lower rates and then selling them at a higher differential. More importantly, the former prime minister does not seem to have submitted the sale of state gifts in his financial declaration. Although Khan and PTI have tried to downplay them, legally a case could be brought against him.
The government’s case suffers from its own weaknesses. The ECP could take action within 120 days, but a case was not presented. Analyst Fauzia Yazdani says the ECP needs to brush up its act. Still, there is room for the government to take Imran Khan to task.
This brings us to the mother of all questions — how far will the military support the idea of throwing Khan under the bus in a manner that would slice him politically into pieces? The generals at the top are conscious of the support that Khan has in the country and the military. Though Bajwa has gently tamed defiance at the top, the junior cadre is still restless. For instance, I came across information that 26 retired army officers in the US collected a few thousand dollars and sent it to Pakistan for those whose pensions were stopped by the army chief. This is just a small example of the defiance that Bajwa faces.
Bajwa’s future and a divided military
The fear that Bajwa would be able to seek extension is also a reason for division in the army. The generals competing for the top slot are aware that Bajwa’s extension would be unpopular, especially among those that still believe in Khan’s politics. Khan is a natural checkmate to Bajwa’s ambitions. The army is generally wary of the high foreign policy cost that Khan brings but he also remains the idea in which they invested for decades. Like the Bangladesh military, the Pakistan Army for the longest wanted to create a third option. In Khan, they may have created a monster, but there is still no consensus on eliminating him completely. There are two key reasons for this.
First, the army would prefer a balance in Punjab where neither Khan nor the Sharifs dominate the show. Senior journalist Najam Sethi says that the political game may be to disqualify Khan and then get both Khan and Sharif’s disqualification reversed through the judiciary and allow them to contest elections, which would create a situation where neither is in total control. A lot now depends on Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan who remains in self-exile in London. Nothing is clear about his plans beyond PTI leaders saying that he will return to Pakistan in September.
Second, the army, which as an institution is very conscious of political legitimacy, may not be keen to go against the popular tide, especially if Khan can maintain his popularity. What they have experienced, and hopefully learnt, is that populist leaders ought to be tactically checkmated but cannot be removed from the scene. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s “judicial murder” added to his popularity. He had come to power riding a popular movement and a socioeconomic trend. Decades later, while other parties and leaders remained asleep to the reality of changing demographics, Imran Khan caught the imagination of a youthful population and an urban middle class that wants recognition and influence to become the prime minister.
Though a large number of the under-35 (which is 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population) is unskilled, it is still the generation born at the cusp of a highly technological and metaverse era. They are not happy with the same subservient style of politics offered by the existing parties. Sadly, the PMLN, which is the PTI’s only rival in Punjab, has little to offer in terms of a new imagination or narrative that is then eloquently presented by a new generation of leaders. The PMLN is not doing service to itself by holding back its main card – Maryam Nawaz Sharif. However, even Nawaz Sharif’s daughter is unable to fill the narrative gap. In short, there is nothing new to sell.
One of the major challenges of narrative building for both the PMLN and the PPP is the fact that the new generation of voters or those around the age of mid-30s or early-40s are people who have spent the longest time seeing these parties in control of governments. They have experienced patronage politics first hand. The four years of Imran Khan weren’t different but that has not consolidated into a memory block that would turn people against him. So, corruption or anti-corruption is still a popular myth that favours the PTI more than its opponents.
This makes Khan and his PTI look more like India’s BJP — the ability to harness ideology to persuade people to join its side. Khan uses religious symbolism to his benefit but ensures that it is never used against him. Even the hawkish foreign policy presented as an independent approach is meant for political gains. Therefore, the challenge for the army is to keep him by their side but not out of control.
Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)