On two counts – annoying Army and America, two of the three pillars on which Pakistan’s polity stands -- may block Imran Khan's future comeback. Only the third, Allah, can help, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor
‘Hit wicket’ is one way to describe the political and parliamentary debacle of Pakistan’s most renowned former cricketer, now the first prime minister to lose a confidence vote on the floor of the National Assembly. He kept away and didn't face the last ball on the floor of the house, as he had pledged to do.
He was a better cricketer than a politician and prime minister and failed to bring his country the glory that his World Cup victory in 1992 had brought.
The "Kaptan" - as he is is colloquially called in honour of his cricket captaincy - lives to fight another day, which is fine in a democracy. His people and the world at large should worry that the “follow on” period may not have effectively ended. Pakistan remains in throes of a prolonged turmoil with its democratic institutions at loggerheads.
His government that had lost its parliamentary majority was able to take and even impose decisions, was notionally respectful of the Supreme Court verdict, but on an extra-legal issue - a “foreign conspiracy” to wean his legislators away to affect a regime change. He named the United States, Pakistan’s biggest benefactor since its birth, through the Cold War era, and thereafter.
It is impossible, not even worthwhile, to check on the "conspiracy" charge. Forced regime changes are not unknown, but Imran Khan barked up the wrong tree, unwilling to blame those who engineered the 2018 elections, to go by the widespread perceptions, and put him in power as their "proxy". In Pakistan the all-powerful Pakistan Army go by the euphemistic moniker 'Establishment'.
Evidently, they were tired of his governance and antics, his mindless tilting at windmills in the name of corruption – a favourite right-wing obsession the world over – when it thrives everywhere including the ‘establishment’' his ‘interference’ in their working and, lastly, the ‘conspiracy’ charge.
His contention that the next government would be ‘imported’ has put not just him but Pakistan and its fragile democracy in a negative light. On two counts – annoying Army and America, two of the three pillars on which Pakistan’s polity stands -- may block Imran Khan's future comeback. Only the third, Allah, can help.
Overcome by hubris
As in cricket, there are also ifs and buts in politics. He should have known when to ‘declare’ his innings. If only he had resigned when his majority support was not challenged, had sought dissolution of the National Assembly and opted for a snap poll, he would have remained the caretaker, possibly with a huge advantage over his political opponents.
Beleaguered democratic leaders do this the world over. But this is the counsel of the unversed. Politics does not work that way, not in Pakistan. Had he accepted a 'leg-before wicket’, the country may have been spared the mayhem in the Assembly and on the streets, leaving the Supreme Court to push a legally and constitutionally vitiated process in the reverse gear.
But then, not a free agent, he remains overcome by hubris, surrounded by the wrong, politically callow advisers. He saw in ‘conspiracy’ bogey a way to bypass the constitutional process and incite ‘patriotic’ sentiments to ensure future electoral gains.
He mounted his 'foreign conspiracy' bogey on his ill-timed meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin just when Ukraine’s invasion began. The alleged foreign conspirators are doing all they can to ‘save’ Ukraine and go after Putin. And Putin, in turn, reinforces Khan’s conspiracy charge, accusing Washington of "punishing" the Pakistani PM for witnessing what Khan had called “exciting times.”
Khan did not heed numerous warnings, some from none less than the Pakistan Army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who, engaging in damage control, rejected the global “camp politics” and condemned Russia’s action in Ukraine as an ‘invasion’. Khan failed to realise that he had blown away the “same page” fig-leaf with the ‘establishment’.
He unleashed a ‘lettergate’, based on an internal memo that Pakistan’s then envoy in Washington had sent after a talk with Donald Lu. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the State Department. This was not the first ‘memo’ or censure concerning Pakistan and Khan was not the first target.
F H Aijazuddin, writing in Dawn (April 7, 2022), talks of two that came in 1999, and concerned India. The first occurred after then High Commissioner Jehangir Ashraf Qazi sent a confidential report to the Foreign Office on a speech made by Friday Times editor Najam Sethi in New Delhi on April 30, 1999. Sethi had described Pakistan as a “failing state [,] in the throes of multiple crises, including a breakdown of law and order, civil society, national security and identity”. This internal report had been released by then PM Nawaz Sharif. Sethi was then accused of undermining the “safety, security and sovereignty” of Pakistan, and arrested for committing “the most contemptible treachery” on “enemy soil”.
The second happened after Pakistan’s incursions in Kargil. Then US President Bill Clinton ordered the release of the minutes of his meeting with Nawaz Sharif on July 4, when the latter agreed to withdraw Pakistani troops from India-controlled territory.
“Returning to Pakistan, PM Sharif tried to renege on his undertaking to withdraw. An infuriated Clinton ordered the minutes to be released, exposing Sharif’s attempted duplicity,” Aijzuddin recalls.
That it ignited a fire between Sharif and then Army Chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, eventually leading to the latter ousting the former, imposing Pakistan’s third Martial Law, is now part of history.
The 'Lettergate' proved to be Imran Khan’s last straw. He clutched at it even after accepting the adverse Supreme Court verdict, using it to name-and-shame his political detractors, and implicating the army and the apex court, and even going to the extent of praising India - a counter he had all along bad-mouhted - for its self-respect and independent foreign policy.
He did not explain many things, including the missive’s timeline. He received it from Washington on March 7, but why did he keep quiet for three weeks? Why was a US diplomat invited to the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC)’s conference on March 21, and shown off, like Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi? Uzra Zeya, the Indian-American lady diplomat in question, once held a key position at the US mission in New Delhi and knows South Asia well.
In politics, as in diplomacy, ironies never cease. The Ukraine conflict promises to rage irrespective of Khan’s political future. One may discern elements of a resumed Cold War. Khan keeps harking back to his cricketing-day glory. But the Cold War has never been the fair game cricket once was. In any case, the values and norms of Khan’s political cricket are vastly different. The man who promised to play “till the last ball,” sought to run away with the ball and defying his country’s Constitution, even dug up the proverbial pitch before the match began.
Has Imran played the last ball?
Khan’s “last ball” threat persists. No illusions need to be entertained about Pakistan’s current ball game. In days to come, the drama in Islamabad’s Red Zone (centre of power) threatens to go into overdrive. Khan may also keep his other threat of proving “more dangerous” out of power.
He will not be alone and not the only one to seek the support of bodies that arouse and inflame public sentiments in the name of the faith and take to the streets. One of the major ones, also a registered political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik-e-Pakistan (TLP) is a prospective ally of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). It has demanded that the Supreme Court investigate the “conspiracy to wrap up the Constitution and impose presidential system.”
These elements influence other parties as well, including the Islamists, whom the much-vaunted ‘establishment’ nurtures till found useful. In 2018, it pitched for Imran Khan, preferring him to the ‘dynasties’ that lead the two mainstream parties, Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of the Bhutto-Zardaris. Since its experiment with Khan has failed, and since it is likely to continue as the “third umpire”, it must choose its favourites carefully – for Pakistan’s welfare and its own relevance.
For the world outside, it is most likely that, like Trumpism in the US, and many other thriving but discredited cult figures, ‘Imranism’ or “Kaptan’s cult” may yet survive in Pakistan.
(The author is a veteran journalist and commentator on South Asian affairs. Views are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)