The dust has settled, more or less, on the drama of the ouster of Imran Khan in Pakistan. While there is still much to be decided, in terms of who will be the next leader or the timing of the next elections, it would be an interesting exercise to assess the main points of uncertainty that have been thrown up, to understand the next season of shock. We look at the three main factors in this drama, with an eye on the future. This is, after all, a country that doesn’t fail to alarm or surprise its own citizens with distressing regularity.
The new prime minister – a short–term man
Shehbaz Sharif, at 70, a not-so-younger brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has finally made it to the chair, something he did not probably even envisage five years ago. It was always Nawaz and his family who were in the limelight, while Shehbaz was (apparently) content to dominate in Punjab. Now his son Hamza Shahbaz Sharif is likely to become the next chief minister in Punjab, where an extremely murky situation has arisen with the Lahore High Court directing the administration to settle a date for elections.
Shehbaz is an extremely wealthy businessman in his own right and declared 675 kanals of land and assets totalling over Rs 159 million during the 2018 elections. Hamza is the CEO of the Ramzan Sugar Mills and the Sharif Group, and in that capacity, he joined his father as an accused in a money laundering case that was – not at all coincidentally – due for indictment on the very day that Shehbaz was being sworn in. Also accused is Shehbaz’s other son Suleman, who is in the UK. All in all, the timing of the no-confidence motion and its success was very short indeed. As Shehbaz was sworn in, the investigating officer applied and was granted leave. There is no doubt that all of this makes good copy for Imran Khan when he addresses the streets.
But Shehbaz has been chosen by the main contestants Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz Sharif as the prime minister because his term will last – if at all – only till January 2023, when the next elections are due. Meanwhile, as prime minister, he has to face the mess that Imran Khan has not only left behind, but continues to propagate outside the National Assembly. That nothing very radical is expected of Shehbaz is already evident in the rather ‘standard’ list of announcements that were made as priorities of the new government, which apart from the obvious desire to raise the economy, continued to toe the line on Kashmir and Afghanistan. That the foreign policy chalice has already been poisoned by his predecessor is apparent in the complete dropping of the United States in the list of countries with which ties are “to be strengthened”.
The honest man fantasy? It’s not over yet
Imran Khan’s effrontery has been staggering. Not only has he used an innocuous diplomatic cable–which would have originated sometime after his Russia visit in end-February–but he also linked the alleged cable that apparently landed in Pakistan on 7 March to a no-confidence motion on 8 March – that is no mean level of political theatre. What is conveniently set aside is that the no-confidence motion was being discussed for months, and was hardly pulled out of a hat. Fairly reliable reporting now indicates how Khan tried to dismiss Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and force martial law, and when that failed due to a very mature army chief, he was forced to accept the court verdict – after 14 hours of delay, and nearly earning himself contempt of court.
Now he’s taken to the streets and has directed his partymen to resign, declaring he would not be part of a ‘foreign-funded’ government. This is the man everyone called honest, no matter whatever else he is. In the background of a constantly blaring television soap opera about the alleged corruption of other leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari, it seemed that this was a most desirable quality. It has been the underlying theme of much of Khan’s speeches, including his last address to the nation where Geo News reported that he repeated ‘I/me/my’ 213 times.
But Khan has actually hardly ever been honest – from his secretive marriage to the divorced Bushra Bibi or ‘Pinki Pirni’; his friendship with General Zia ul Haq even while decrying Gen. Musharraf as a ‘dictator’; when he was charged by those in the know of being under the direction of former ISI Chief Shuja Pasha among others; when a case against him as early as 2018 charged him for collecting $3 million in illegal foreign funds through two offshore companies, registered under Khan’s signature; when illegal ‘hundi’ channels from the Middle East funded accounts of PTI employees, and when the party blocked and obfuscated details and continues to do so.
And on top of all this, the constant allegations of being prone to ‘seeking signs’ to the point of being of questionable stability, and the overweening belief in himself as destined to be the leader of the “ummah”, Imran Khan has proved to be dangerous to himself and most of all to his country. The tragedy? He’s not done yet.
Curiosity three – the man in the middle
The third obvious question on everyone’s lips is why the Pakistani army stayed rigidly neutral, almost till the end. While it is unquestionable that Khan tried to retain Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed as DG ISI, and that a falling out did actually take place over the appointment, he has since made the most curious remarks – including noting in reference to army neutrality, that only animals are neutral. He also chose to declare in public that the army chief had chided him for calling Maulana Fazlur Rehman by the nickname “Maulana Diesel” (a moniker that pointed to alleged corruption in sending diesel to Afghanistan). There are also reports that he tried to sow divisions within the army by backing Hameed and a group of generals who would only benefit if Bajwa retires in November.
In all fairness, such games have been tried by other prime ministers in the past, with disastrous results. The army doesn’t tolerate such mechanisms. Yet, the only indications of a heavy hand on his shoulder is Khan’s sullen acceptance of the Supreme Court decision, the army chief’s remarks supporting the US line on Ukraine, and subsequent signals that Pakistan preferred US equipment over Chinese, all aimed at nullifying the damage caused to bilateral relations. This time, the army has played an extremely cautious game, refusing to get drawn into political muck. But its hands seem to be tied. As Imran Khan reverts to his role of street protests, there is no doubt that his strategy (or what was suggested to him) is masterly – that of a ‘clean leader’ fighting off a ‘foreign conspiracy’, and a ‘victim’ of the establishment. You can’t arrest him. That’s exactly what he wants, with his workers on the streets in anti-army protests and his allegations that his life is in danger. Having covered all scenarios, Imran Khan thinks he has outwitted the army. The key issue here is whether the ISI chief is actually backing him. If yes, his protests will draw larger and larger crowds, and develop into a real threat. If not, it will degenerate into a soap box orator drawing a few paid volunteers. That assessment needs about a month of watching Khan’s antics.
It’s a parody of sorts that under the ‘honest’ prime minister, Pakistan slid 16 points on a corruption index; that its passport ranking is just above Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, and that its currency has slid to its worst ever reaching PKR 189 at one point. Shehbaz Sharif has a far from enviable job. Despite his talent as an administrator, he needs some political stability to restart payments from international financial institutions, and get a traumatised country into some order. Most of all, he needs to arrest the dangerous Right-wing drift that Khan encouraged in his desire to make himself out as a prince within the ummah. Instead, what’s left is a country that is nearly a pauper, as other Islamic states like Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia surge ahead. Shehbaz and those who mean well for the country need to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. It’s possible, providing Imran Khan allows that. So far, there’s no evidence of it.
Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.