Imran Khan is gone from the corridors of power, giving many a sense of relief. As part of the process of dismantling Khan, politically, the Generals are trying to shift the burden of responsibility of bad governance, in which they were equally involved, on the former PM’s shoulders. But the problem is that while ‘Imran Khan the prime minister’ is shunted out, ‘Khan the ideology’ that the army had a hand in creating remains, and it continues to divide Pakistan’s urban space – the middle classes, the diaspora, and the youth. Moreover, it seems to have divided the military fraternity vertically — while the senior officers have agreed to support General Bajwa, many amongst the rank of Brigadier and below are still sympathetic towards Khan.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who along with his head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) brought Imran Khan to power in 2018, was not the original creator of the idea of an alternative and charismatic leader to counter the political old guard. He was the implementer of a concept that goes back to General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and his ISI chief General Pasha, who, in turn, were inspired by their predecessors—the likes of Lt. General Hamid Gul. The Generals, despite being dishonest themselves, have always desired an honest politician or someone who would administer the State relatively efficiently while they chart its strategic direction. The aversion to parliamentary politics and electable politicians is old and dates back to political experiences of the first coup-maker, General Ayub Khan. Historically, the army partnered with traditional politicians that it considered feudal but in reality desired to have someone that looked more modern and like them. It was on this principle that Imran Khan was created. The idea lived with them for so long that now that Khan has to be abandoned. Many find it difficult to disassociate from the idea. The PTI leader’s departure from power divides the urban middle class that has the military representing the largest block.
‘Khan the ideological problem’ will have to be dealt with more imaginatively. Indeed, this is not the first time that the politically powerful army has got rid of a government that proved costly or challenged the military institutionally. Historically, the army has targeted leaders it created. The other best example is Nawaz Sharif who was built by the Zia regime in the 1980s to challenge the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) but then removed several times.
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Why Imran’s case is different
Every sacked government was vilified as corrupt. I remember receiving text messagess pinning stories even about young Bilawal Bhutto. However, the problem seems to be more difficult and different this time. Though stories are slowly coming out about Khan’s own corruption deeds and misuse of power for self-gratification, they are not sticking the same way as in the past. There are three reasons to explain this.
First, thus far the corruption allegations have not thrown up excessively high figures compared to the stories of the past. In people’s perception, especially those who want to believe Khan’s story, PKR142 million he earned from selling 52 State gifts after paying a minimal price, or the $ five million he spent on helicopter rides between his public and private homes are nothing when compared to sums involved in Panama Papers or the kind of money made by former President Asif Ali Zardari. It almost seems that the military is holding itself back from really exposing Khan, or it’s just that they are taking too much time.
Second, Khan has proven to be more cunning and calculative than his ‘Im the Dim’ description, meant to suggest him as a simpleton or dim witted. In the last year-and-a-half, as he was confronted with greater governance challenges, Khan consistently encouraged the myth that his poor management was either because of getting an incompetent team or that he was not being allowed to work. The later explanation brings the army in the firing line more than Khan, in a country where the former is known to interfere.
Third, in ‘producing’ Imran Khan, the army did not create an ordinary leader. He turned out to be a cultist-populist, or a messiah kind of a figure – someone who people follow without demanding too much evidence. The army didn’t just create a politician. Imran Khan ended up being a charisma that people believed in because they were taught that everything else was sham. When Khan came into power in 2018, a general belief was that he was brought in for at least ten years — to replace the traditional politicians and add a third party to the country’s ‘two-party’ system. This reminds one of the Bangladesh military’s abhorrence of its two-party system that it tried to change in 2007 but failed.
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The divide within
Pakistan army’s socio-political experimentation and its abandonment seems to have created a divide within their larger fraternity that includes both serving and retired members. When the crisis started in early April, the divide within the military was both vertical and horizontal. Even General Tariq Khan (retd), a liberal who is liked by the Americans, or former naval chief Afzal Tahir have argued in favour of Khan and against using the judiciary to push the PTI leader out. Not to forget a divide within the media, civil bureaucracy and former diplomats supporting Khan’s conspiracy theory claims. Bajwa had to explain his position to both — senior serving and retired personnel. Sources claim that during the briefing at the army GHQ, there were at least two senior officers who questioned Bajwa’s decision to abandon Khan and bring back the tried and tested politicians. The chief had to explain that Khan had failed at governance and at bolstering the economy. According to one source, Bajwa even argued that Khan’s use of the ISI against political rivals did not have his approval.
So far, as sources indicate, the army chief has managed to calm down senior segments of his fraternity and convinced them to come to his side even if they were uncomfortable abandoning Imran Khan. This is probably owed to the power of the military economy or MILBUS (military business) that helps in generating discipline. Paul Staniland, Adnan Naseem Ullah and Ahsan Butt have hinted in their paper Pakistan’s Military Elite, how military kleptocracy generates discipline or professionalism at the top.
Rewards help keep men in line. But those in lower ranks with lesser benefits or ex-servicemen that are part of the fraternity pose a problem for the establishment if they get pulled away due to ideological experiments. In 2001, for example, after having exposed the army to Afghan and other jihads, then ISI chief Lt. General Mehmood, I was told, briefed a visiting RAND Corporation team that 15-16 per cent army officers had religious extremist tendencies. The problem was managed after a series of purges. The social media is abuzz, with support for Khan pouring in from this segment of the military that includes all three services. Their sentiment is similar to that of the Pakistan’s diaspora living abroad that not just supports the PTI leader but is also vocal in their anger against General Bajwa for letting Khan down. The former PM enjoys the support of the likes of Brigadier (retd) Ashfaq Ahmed and Major (retd) Adil. It is suggested that the latter had to flee to London to avoid getting picked up by intelligence for questioning.
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The disenchanted lot that chose Imran
The ‘Khan ideological experiment’ mixed religious culture with the vision of demolishing old Pakistan that was corrupt and feudal. An anti-corruption narrative was manufactured by the GHQ. It has its blueprint in General Zia-ul-Haq’s removal of Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo in May 1988. While corruption was an excuse to sack the government, the real issue was friction over the civilian government wanting to investigate the Ojhri camp disaster and signing Geneva Accords against the will of the Generals. In the years to come, four governments were dismissed through special presidential powers using the anti-corruption mantra (1988, 1990, 1993, & 1996). General Musharraf sacked Nawaz Sharif’s second government in 1999 using the same excuse and then brought the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to target only corrupt politicians or their civil servant partners. It excluded judges and Generals. Khan was created as an honest archetype to replace the dishonest lot.
But Imran Khan utterly failed at cleaning corruption. Consequently, the Generals failed too in creating a new Pakistan. The bigger problem is that the hatred of traditional politicians runs in the military’s DNA. The institution’s propaganda machinery describes the political class as corrupt, socially regressive, feudal, and a sellout. This narrative was also institutionalised in the minds of the urban middle class, especially the youth and those segments that did not benefit from patronage outreach of the old parties. About 31 per cent of voters had voted for Imran Khan in 2018. It’s these people that are now hurt the most. In a growing urbanising backdrop, this electorate supported Khan for reasons similar to those witnessed in India. In 2014, Narendra Modi too came to power on an anti-corruption plank. Their continued admiration of Khan is not out of love for him but because of rejection of the Zardaris and the Sharifs.
Now that the ‘Khan vision’ has blown up in General Bajwa’s face, the army chief has the tough task of cleaning the mess. And doing it would be harder because his term too is ending. This means that he may be averse to carrying out surgical purges. Given the skeletons in his cupboard, Bajwa would not like to rock the boat too hard. He may, as journalist Ali Warsi argues, adopt the tactic of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ which is not something just to be used against India but for all enemies. The ‘Khan idea’ could be killed slowly and gradually, blow by blow, by not just exposing the former PM’s errors but also by managing rewards, postings and transfers, and luring the mid ranks. But dissuading the urban middle class may become difficult and bite back if those that have replaced Khan don’t deliver on the promise of ‘better politics’.
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 Anurag Chaubey)