More than two years after he became the prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan is struggling to maintain that all-important balance with the most important actor in his country’s politics: the Pakistan Army.
This, despite the popular belief in Pakistan that Imran Khan came to power in August 2018 because of the behind-the-scenes backing of the army.
In the post-Musharraf era, the Pakistan Army refrains from interfering very visibly in the political dynamics of the country, preferring to pull strings from behind, to maintain an illusion of plausible deniability.
Imran faces trouble on many fronts
Pakistan’s opposition parties have come together in a show of unity under the umbrella of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to demand the removal of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, accusing it of failing on all fronts. Pakistan’s economy is on life support, and the prime minister has not been able to respond effectively to the many foreign policy challenges, including from neighbouring India, the PDM says.
The federal government appears to have reacted with panic, arresting Shahbaz Sharif, the powerful brother of former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
But an emboldened Nawaz Sharif has been able to attack Imran Khan from his safe perch in London. Meanwhile, Maulana Fazal ur Rahman is again warning of a million-man march. And as the world’s big powers smoke the peace pipe in Kabul, the Pakistan Taliban has stepped up its attacks on Pakistani security forces in the border region with Afghanistan. Since March, at least 40 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in attacks by Pakistani Taliban and local groups aligned to the militant group.
Shia-Sunni tensions are also on the rise, and the Imran Khan regime has become increasingly intolerant of criticism, with some journalists even facing sedition charges.
Pessimism is in the air, and according to a survey by the France-based organisation lpsos, four in five Pakistanis fear that the country is heading in the wrong direction. The survey also revealed that about 75 per cent of Pakistanis described the economic situation in their country as ‘bad’.
Enter Nawaz Sharif
While Pakistan’s history is replete with political instability and military coups, there are some reasons why the current situation is a bit different. For once, Nawaz Sharif has openly hit out at the dreaded ISI, calling it a “state above the state”. While that may not sound like a startling revelation for anyone following Pakistani affairs, the bluntness of the remarks by Nawaz Sharif – who arguably remains the most popular politician in Pakistan – is significant.
At the same time, a much-talked-about meeting last month between the army-ISI and opposition parties in which the generals reportedly urged the increasingly assertive Opposition to not get the military involved in politics has triggered a slew of conspiracy theories.
Is the army fed up of Imran Khan or is this just another play of the dice in a confusing game? It is hard to hazard a guess.
But the coming together of Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazal ur Rehman, a vocal Imran Khan critic and leader of Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) who has a proven ability to summon a vast number of people at short notice and shut down Pakistan’s major towns and cities, has added to the smoke and mirrors theories.
Imran Khan has many reasons to be worried as he loses control of the plot. Even more worryingly, the Pakistan Army could resort to misadventures on its eastern border to deflect attention from its own contribution to the dysfunction Pakistan finds itself in.