By Shivam Shekhawat
November is expected to be a challenging month for Pakistan. A failed attempt to assassinate former Prime Minister Imran Khan during his rally in Wazirabad on the seventh day of his Long March, has ratcheted up the tensions in the country.
While the PTI chairman is out of danger, the intended and unintended consequences of the act don’t instil hope for the future. The impending transition in the military high command with the current Chief of Army Staff (COAS) expected to retire by November end and Imran Khan’s unceasing attacks on the military and the government hint at a challenging period for Pakistan’s democracy. While it’s not unusual for civilian leadership to get into a stand-off with each other, what distinguishes the current crisis is the military’s involvement and the potential for escalation that such an involvement portends.
Stability has evaded Islamabad ever since Khan was removed from office in April this year; the events of the last few days have further complicated the situation. The death of a journalist, Arshad Sharif, who was mysteriously killed in a shooting in Kenya has been co-opted by different sections of the state to further their narrative. Even though the military’s ‘invisible hand’ in influencing political decisions in the country is open knowledge now, there has always been a sense of mystery associated with the ‘establishment’. This aura and the institution’s ostensible invincibility came to tatters last week. In response to Khan’s unrelenting tirade against the officers of the army and the COAS, the Chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the spokesperson of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) organised a first of its kind press conference. With the apparent aim of clearing the air around Sharif’s killing, the presser was used as a platform by the army to disparage Khan and his wily machinations to destabilise the polity as well as assuage the alleged divisions within the force itself.
A war of narratives
Imran Khan’s offensive against the ruling coalition of the PPP and the PML-N under Shehbaz Sharif has continued unabated. He has been mobilising people through divisive rhetoric and huge rallies, against the ineffective dynasty politics of both these ‘corruption-ridden’ parties and exhorting them to support the PTI to usher in a new dawn in Pakistan. While there were hopes that his momentum will falteras the months passed, his recent win in the by-elections, where he secured six out of the seven seats in the National Assembly gives an indication of the support that he still enjoys. His typical assertions of the corruption of the Sharif family and their petty politics are nothing unusual, it is his increased tempo of criticisms against the Pakistan military that has changed the rules of the game.
While Khan’s ascension to power in 2018 was seen as a consequence of the military’s support, the latter’s role in his downfall in April 2022 has been the target of his rhetoric for the last few months. Blaming the United States (US) for hatching a regime change conspiracy, he also indirectly attacked the military for withdrawing its support and backing the Opposition. Speculations about Khan falling out of favour with the military owing to his reticence in the appointment of the new ISI Chief and his efforts to displace the current COAS have been circulating since last year but the scale and intensity of the contentions against the military that he has been spewing is unprecedented. Initially resorting to innuendoes like ‘neutrals’, etc, he eventually escalated to direct name calling, blaming them for the chaos that the country is in at present. Refusing to bracket himself with the likes of previous Prime Ministers who coddled the army to retain their seats, he asked the military to rethink its policies, justifying his backlash as ‘constructive criticism’ to further strengthen the institution.
Demanding vociferously for an election ahead of schedule, he announced a “Long March” from Lahore on 28th October for their ‘jihad for Haqeeqi Azadi’. With the purported aim of calling fresh elections and fighting for justice for the slain journalist, the march and its rallies have been a stage for the populist leader to engage in utopian speeches, weaving dreams of a new Pakistan and a ‘soft revolution’. The party has been harping over the popularity of their rallies, presenting it as a sign of the dissatisfaction that the citizens have with the incumbent government and their desire to hold the people in power accountable. Khan has been successful to an extent in placing that accountability on the ruling coalition and the military, with he himself donning the armour of their saviour, the one who will chart a new course for the country, if only he’s given a free hand to do that.
Thus, for Khan, creating a persona of a self-made man who has the will and the capability to change Pakistan’s fortune but who is repeatedly thwarted by the ‘powers that be’ from exercising his duty is a strategy to replenish his electoral fortunes. An early election presents him an opportunity to capitalise on this rhetoric and pressing for an early election as it is the only way to reach ‘stability’ to resolve the economic woes of the country. He outrightly rejected the possibility of working with the ruling coalition. Meanwhile, the civilian leadership has been found flailing, unable to stop the tide of discontent while simultaneously failing to stabilize the country.
A political presser
On the eve of Khan’s Long March, in an unprecedented move, the DG ISI, Nadeem Anjum, along with the Spokesperson for ISPR, Lt Gen Babar Iftikhar held a press conference. Aimed at dispelling the fake narratives created and disseminated by Khan to come back in power around the killing of journalist Arshad Sharif, the novelty of the security forces organising a presser became a subject of intense discussions in Pakistan and outside. Questions about a proverbial chink in the military’s armour and the effectiveness of Khan’s malignant rhetoric in dampening the army’s unity and strength were also asked.
The presser was aimed at multiple things. Primarily intended to distance the military from the political mess that had engulfed the nation, it was as much targeted to the common citizens and the civilian leadership as to the military itself. Rejecting the army’s role in the killing of the journalist, the ISI reassured the people and reiterated its decision to refrain from meddling in political affairs. The two officers chided Khan for offering the current COAS an extension to save his government and argued that it was because of their refusal to step out of their constitutional remit that Khan unleashed his fury on the institution.
Assassination and its aftermath
Adding fuel to an already simmering fire, an assassination attempt was made at Khan. The former premier got shot in the leg and is out of danger while the shooter has been apprehended. In less than 24 hours of the attempted assassination, protests have erupted in the country, with PTI supporters thronging the streets in Karachi, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, burning tyres and chanting slogans against the government. The official Twitter channel of the PTI posted footage of protests outside the Core Commander House in Peshawar insinuating how press conferences by ‘non-political’ people and their failure to prevent the attack on their chairman can lead to dissatisfaction with the establishment. Images of people vandalising army tanks and marching to officers’ houses show a tectonic shift in the perception of the military amongst the people.
Portraying it as an assault on ‘Pakistan’, the PTI soon weaponised the attack to further their demands for a snap election. More political drama ensued when the Pakistan Electronic and Media Regulatory Authority refrained news channels from airing PTI leader Asad Umar’s video where he named ‘three suspects’ that Imran Khan believed carried the attack. Deeming it capable of disturbing peace and interfering with the investigation, it categorised the claims as unsubstantiated and aimed at casting ‘aspersions against state institutions’.
Imran Khan’s term in office was characterised as a sort of hybrid regime in Pakistan. This system, while allowing the military to handle the reins of the government from behind, precluded it from taking any responsibility if things went downhill. And everything would have gone as per plan if not for the challenge presented by the PTI chairman and his flurry of supporters. The civilian government’s inability to rise to the occasion and the military’s claims lambasting Khan for his secret overtures and his offer to extend the tenure of the COAS helped in reinforcing the sentiments of the supporters of PTI about the military’s role in the no-confidence motion. While events of the past few weeks must have compelled the armed forces to rethink their strategy, it in no turn marks the beginning of their retreat from politics, no matter the public statements. Concerns about the ineffectiveness of the hybrid regime and the fundamental difference in perception between a military official and a political appointee will persist, something which the next COAS will have to manage as he assumes leadership.
The Long March was expected to reach Islamabad on 4th November but the delays on ground and now the assassination attempt has put things in a limbo. The ruling government has been on its toes and the Interior Minister has refused to grant the march permission unless it commits to being completely peaceful. Wrapping his statements in the cloak of rights, justice and true freedom, Khan has presented an all-out effort at keeping himself relevant and rallying public opinion behind him. His talks of a revolution and a complete overhaul in the governance of the country don’t stem from a genuine desire to bring in reforms. Like his predecessors, he’s concerned with coming back to office and concentrating power in his own hands. But the government has outrightly rejected any talks with him on the question of the next COAS or the elections, blaming him for giving fodder to Indian media because of his public rant against the military.
Going ahead, the country will have to confront some difficult questions. While pre-empting Khan’s next move will be a difficult task, there will be an increased politicisation of the appointment of the new COAS and a rising crescendo of voices will demand early elections. With the elections scheduled more than ten months away, the chances of the situation stabilising seem bleak at the moment.