As I sat late last night writing this article, twiddling my thumbs and waiting for the Islamabad and Punjab police to arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan, it dawned on me that Pakistan’s hybrid government is extremely flawed. Not only does it pretend to be democratic, it also does nothing to serve the interests of a powerful military.
PM Shehbaz Sharif seems unable to prove effective in his endeavour to put the ex-PM behind bars. And this is despite all the right signals from Pakistan’s army chief to ‘sort out’ Imran by taking the lead in arresting him.
Shehbaz and his interior minister, Rana Sanaullah (who has a reputation for being as capable as a character from the Wild West), simply cannot unleash enough terror to discipline Imran. And the latter seems to be going even more out of control, determined to fight not just the government but the State itself.
Whatever the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf leader’s ultimate fate, he has definitely managed to create an unprecedented tamasha. Even the most popular Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did not take on the State in such a way. Or perhaps we have missed that in 75 years of Independent Pakistan. The country’s political flavour has changed to give us both a hint of Bhutto’s populism and Mujeeb-Ur-Rehman’s daring to the State. This is not to suggest that Imran is like either of them, though.
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Imran is ready to fight
Known as a master of u-turns, Imran seems ready for a fight, possibly hoping that the government will relent and back off. He seems prepared to use violence and even collect some dead bodies on the way, except that this formula may not work forever. Today, more than ever, one can see signs of high risk in his strategy. So far, he has been tackling the state with his propensity to violence. As I was told by some close members of his family, Imran has tribal militias guarding his residence in Lahore’s Zaman Park neighbourhood. Apparently, Gilgit-Baltistan police commandoes are also protecting him from the onslaught of Punjab police officers.
This is not an ordinary criminal or a dacoit; this is an elected member of parliament shaking up everything—from law and order to the judiciary, government and military—posing as bigger than all and demonstrating an unimaginable impudence. Sharif and Sanaullah are too conscious of the political cost to ultimately pull the trigger themselves. They would rather let the Pakistan Army Chief, General Syed Asim Munir, take the ultimate responsibility for unleashing all kinds of terror to control Imran. After all, it was Munir who put them at the forefront of this battle. Imran is clearly drifting toward being more of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, whom the top brass would like to punish and sideline than save for another day. This could certainly be the moment that will burn everyone, including the military.
Greater violence is inevitable, with the possibility of the most harrowing and unpredictable consequences. The police are out to arrest Imran on orders of the lower courts in two different cases.
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Stacking up legal odds won’t help
There is yet another case of the Toshakhana – sale of State gifts – for which the hearing is due on 18 March.
Any ordinary citizen refusing to appear before the court would be severely pulled up for contempt of court. However, as even an Imran fan said to me recently, the former cricketer-turned-politician thinks of himself above the law and all institutions. He also claims that the arrest is a possible ruse to kill him. He does not want to ride in a police van or enter a lockup or jail. This serves as a reminder of his opponent, former PM Mian Nawaz Sharif’s, similar apprehension of Pakistan’s prisons and judicial system. Between personal egos and a real fear of being harmed, the leaders of the two main parties in Punjab continue to defy the State and its laws in their own ways.
What happens in the court of law is a different story, but the fact of the matter is that stacking up the legal odds does not necessarily affect Imran’s popularity, especially as the Toshakhana case has not borne dividends, at least not in public eyes.
Islamabad’s efforts to convince people that Imran sold expensive gifts given to him as a government functionary in a criminal bid to make profits were diluted when the government released a detailed list on State gifts. It has become apparent that everyone seemed to have had a hand in this State gift cookie jar. From Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and Yusuf Raza Gillani to Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz Sharif, Shahid Khakan Abbasi and Miftah Ismail, it did not occur to anyone ever to auction the items and use the money for better purposes. Instead, the Toshakhana was treated as a secret kitty for a select group of the top elite – and their family members, personal guards and close bystanders – to benefit from. The publication of this list, in fact, may have diluted the argument that many people, including writer Husain Haqqani, tried to make: The problem was with the sale, not the appropriation.
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Pakistan’s brittle hybrid govt helps Imran’s cause
Of course, Imran’s method was questionable, and so was the fact that he didn’t declare this wealth in front of Pakistan’s election commission, but this is definitely not the area where supporters would pass judgement on him. If anything, the list’s release may have given the PTI leader greater confidence in his apparent innocence.
One of the key sources of Imran’s confidence is the divide within Pakistan’s armed forces. But he also understands that this is a battle he would have to fight till the end. Despite that, Shah Mehmood Qureshi – who was foreign affairs minister under Imran – has stated that he would step into Imran’s shoes as PTI chief if he were jailed or disqualified from contesting elections. However, there is no fight or party if Imran is removed from the scene. Thus, the risks of miscalculations on both sides are higher. Any misstep could leave an indelible mark on the country’s fragile politics. The country’s army chief today is in no enviable position.
Looking at the developments in Pakistan, I am less confident of early elections than ever. More importantly, Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership must realise that hybridity does not work. Either the Generals take charge again, or the political class devise a formula to wrest control or keep their silence for years to come.
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. This article originally appeared on The Friday Times.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)