Imran Khan unlikely to go, but Pakistan Army's China-like arrogance towards Opposition should give India pause

Tara Kartha

The turn of events is a new one even for Pakistan. The husband of a prominent politician is picked up in the dead of night from a hotel by Central agencies who arm-twist state police to carry out the deed.

The charge is minor, and senior police officials are publicly outraged. But Prime Minister Imran Khan carries on regardless. Only in Pakistan. This, however, is something to be seen with concern, rather than glee. A Pakistan that is effectively a banana Republic is not in our interest. A stable enemy is far better than one unhinged.

The events

Take the timeline of events. As is even now being breathlessly discussed, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif made an unprecedented statement at the humongous Gujranwala rally of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) by directly accusing Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and his ISI chief Lt General Faiz Hameed of removing him from power in favour of the 'selected' Imran Khan.

The accusation was hardly startling in a country accustomed to the army's political role. What was hair-raising, was Nawaz accusing a sitting army chief while declining to use the usual euphemisms of 'khaki', 'khalai maqlooq' (aliens) and establishment.

Three days later, Captain (retd) Safdar, son-in-law of Nawaz, was arrested on the basis of an FIR lodged allegedly by local Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) parliamentarian for violating the "Qaid e Azam Mausoleum Maintenance and Protection Order 1971', which disallows people demonstrating inside its premises, which he seems to have done.

Safdar was picked up from a Karachi hotel in a "humiliating manner" and shifted to the thana. The Sindh Police tweeted that the law was followed, but thereafter deleted it. It then emerged that the Sindh IG police and the ADGP were virtually kidnapped at 4 am and forced to register the FIR.

The next day, the IGP, and 15 other officers asked for immediate leave declaring themselves 'demoralised and shocked'.

The army chief has since promised to act on a request from Pakistan Peoples Party leader Bilawal Bhutto to 'look' into the Karachi incident. But the damage has been done. This is near anarchy when a civilian institution pronounces itself unable to function.

The motley grouping of PDM

First, no one, least of all the army, is likely to see the Pakistan Democratic Movement: the grouping of 11 parties, as one homogenous whole. Even before the rally, MNA Mohsin Dawar, linked to the Pakistan Tahaffuz Movement was disinvited, due to his open opposition to the army, an uncomfortable position for parties who have eaten the salt of Rawalpindi at one time or another.

Arising from that, the open calling out of General Bajwa by Nawaz was clearly unexpected. PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto termed this as 'unfortunate', thus indicating that it was no part of the combined Opposition's plan to alienate the army.

Which begs the question of why Nawaz said what he did. After all, he had deep selected this particular army chief, and his party voted for his extension in January.

Nawaz's annoyance is that the army has been doing its successful best to split the party, openly holding two meetings with a senior PML-N leader, ostensibly to 'discuss' political matters. Nawaz promptly barred party members from any such meetings.

Meanwhile Sheik Rasheed, a longtime mouthpiece of the army, has alleged that 25 parliamentarians of Sharif's party are ready to jump ship. Then there's Maulana Fazlur Reman, of the Jamiat Ulema Islam (F) who was selected as the head of the PDM by its constituents, as least likely to dash the hopes of the mainstream parties.

His hyped up sit-in in Islamabad in November 2019, collapsed after his present allies dropped out. The other parties representing the Pashtuns and the Baloch, spoke of the genuine problems of the people, without naming the army at all.

It is this motley crew whom Imran Khan has threatened with retribution from a "naya' Imran Khan, even while unfailingly referring also to his pet grouse €" Narendra Modi €" who is said to 'like' Nawaz Sharif. That's enough to damn him as an 'anti-national'.

The lacklustre history of mainstream parties unity, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz signing the Charter of Democracy in 2006 and Sharif and Zardari joining against Musharraf in 2008, seems to make the possibility of threat seem spurious. But they did manage to effect change.

Musharraf was soon forced to leave the country, in part, by this combine. But he had also become an embarrassment to the army, not least because of his peace overtures to India. Imran is in no danger of making such a mistake. His ranting against Prime Minister Modi as a 'fascist' is a hallmark of his regime, while his constant harping on Kashmir, while avoiding any knowledge at all of the mass detention camps in Xinjiang, now seems to be wisdom itself with reference to his own longevity.

Then there is the establishment's very deliberate public and televised unveiling of Nawaz's vast wealth in alleged corruption deals, to a populace who can barely afford one square meal, that will make it difficult for him to ever return.

What could move Imran out eventually however, is the very real troubles that have beset the people, which is a food crisis of unprecedented dimensions caused by bad policies, a swarm of locusts, and the pandemic.

In addition, Imran's crusade against corruption has caused unease among the business community, alienating this valuable class of voters. The once prosperous state of Punjab is in a mess due to the mess created by his nominee Usman Buzdar. That Imran is blissfully in a state of denial is apparent from his "displeasure" with his economic team in not highlighting the country's (non-existent) economic successes.

As a noted analyst observed, Imran has a genius for pushing people into the Opposition even while living in his "hallowed bubble". All of this is "standard" Pakistan history. Leaders come and go, usually in a hurry. It is the level of open, hard-fisted bullying of the Opposition by agencies linked to the army that is unusual.

What is worrying, therefore, is not that Pakistan's politics is likely to witness upheavals in the three years before the next election, unlikely since Imran will continue to toe the line, but that it seems the Pakistan Army is changing, adopting the tactics and arrogance of 'all-weather friend' China and its contempt for any Opposition.

The overwhelming influence of the army is now apparent, particularly in Pakistan's policy towards India. A country dominated by an institution that seems joined at the waist to a malign China is something that has far greater potential for trouble for Delhi than a mere changing of the guard in Islamabad.

Meanwhile, it seems that the old adage is true. Your life as a rule, is determined by the company you keep.

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