By Sushant Sareen
Pakistan’s ‘selected’ Prime Minister, Imran Khan, loves to live in a world of alternate reality, which he conjures up in his own mind. By his own admission, he would rather not see or hear anything that shatters the delusions he harbours in his head. No surprise then that even when four out of five Pakistanis believe their country is headed in the wrong direction, Imran Khan is convinced that the country is headed in the right one. Since he was placed in the office of Prime Minister around eighteen months back, Imran Khan has presided over the most vindictive , vicious and vacuous government in Pakistan. The sense of drift in the affairs of state is overwhelming, and there is deep disquiet even among his sponsors – the Pakistan military establishment. After all, if you have a Prime Minister who thinks that the greatest economic achievement of any government is to maintain the Current Account Balance without bothering about either inflation, growth, galloping debt, or any other economic parameter, then you know how bad things are.
Because of the feckless governance and political mismanagement, even as Imran Khan strutted around in Davos hard-selling Pakistan as the next big thing in the global economy, back home, no one is quite buying his spiel. The new year has brought with it rumblings within the party and in the ‘establishment’, with the political air being thick with intimations of something-going-to-give-way-soon. No one is quite sure what is going to give, but there appears to be a consensus that business as usual is no longer a tenable proposition. For months now, there have been reports that the ‘selectors’ (read military establishment) are getting uneasy with the man they ‘selected’. Instead of heeding their ‘advice’ to fix things and make changes in the administration, Imran Khan has doubled down on the political non-entities he has picked to run the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
For more than a year, the military has gone along, even propped up the Imran Khan regime. Without the support of the military, the flimsy majority the prime minister enjoys in the National Assembly (cobbled together by the military) would disappear very fast. One of the ‘iron laws’ of Pakistani politics is that if the military backs a government, then even a minority can be converted into a majority; but if the military opposes a government, even a 2/3rd majority can be converted into a minority. This support, which has kept Imran Khan ensconced in the PM house, is now appearing rattled. At the very least, the military is sending signals (or if you will, putting Imran Khan on notice) that he needs to shape up by making changes in the way things are being run, not just at the centre, but also in the provinces, particularly in Punjab.
The new year started with hectic political negotiations to get parliament to clear the law on giving an extension to the army chief. Ironically, what should have been a feather in the cap of the government, cementing its relations with the military, has turned out to be the biggest disrupter in Pakistani politics. The alacrity with which the two main opposition parties – PML-N and PPP – supported the army chief’s extension bill fuelled rumours of a deal between the ‘establishment’ and these parties, spooking the ruling PTI. Within days of the passing of the extension bill, the political churn started with both allies and disgruntled leaders making threatening noises.
The MQM was the first to quit the cabinet. While it did not withdraw support to the government, the act of leaving the cabinet set alarm bells ringing. After all, the new MQM, which has been bludgeoned into obedience by the military, just is not in a position to take such a big step without a nudge and wink from the real rulers of Pakistan. Even as the ruling party scrambled to woo the MQM back, another component of the ruling coalition – Grand Democratic Alliance, a motley crew of anti-PPP and pro-establishment politicians from Sindh – came up with their complaints. A third component – BNP-Mengal – has for long been threatening to withdraw the outside support it lends to the government as its demands were not being met. The BNP-M again came out with their litany of complaints.
But what really shook up the ruling party was when arguably its most important coalition partner – PMLQ – accused the PTI of violating the agreement on the basis of which it joined the coalition and gave an ultimatum to either deliver on the bargain or else the PMLQ would decide its next course of action. Without the PMLQ’s support, the PTI government in Punjab province will collapse, and will have trouble garnering a majority even in the National Assembly. Within days, the PTI leaned over backward to appease the PMLQ, and while it engaged the MQM, it has been unable to deliver on its demands because these demands on enforced disappearances of MQM workers and reopening its offices are in the hands of the military establishment.
Even as the allies were putting pressure, serious fissures erupted within the ranks of the PTI. One federal minister fired a missive to the Prime Minister questioning the functioning of the Punjab government; party MNAs from Karachi targeted a federal minister from the same city; in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa there was a virtual rebellion against the Chief Minister; in Punjab pressure started mounting to replace the sitting Chief Minister and in Balochistan the PTIs coalition partner also faced a rebellion by none other than the Speaker of the assembly.
The speed and the suddenness at which things were happening naturally raised serious questions on whether the system was on the verge of collapsing. At the very least, not just party leaders but also allies and opponents were sensing that the government was weak and vulnerable, that chinks had appeared in the armour of Imran Khan and his coterie, and so the time was ripe to make their moves and see how far they could push the envelope. However, there are also more ominous suggestions on what might be happening. Three of the four coalition allies – PMLQ, MQM and GDA – are quintessential lackeys of the military establishment. They would not dare to rattle the cage without a go-ahead from their controllers in Khakis. Therefore, if these parties were suddenly making threatening noises, then it had to be seen as a signal from the establishment to Imran Khan. In other words, the prime minister was being given a bit of a jolt to become organized and arrest the drift in governance and fix the administrative disarray that was becoming not only untenable, but also embarrassing for the military. The overtures by the military to the opposition – the spate of bails for incarcerated opposition politicians, permission to Nawaz Sharif to go abroad, easing up on the pressure on the two main opposition parties – is also being seen as the establishment weighing its options and preparing for Plan B if the current plan (Imran Khan) fails to deliver.
Despite the growing disquiet in the military, two things have worked in Imran’s favour so far. The first is Imran Khan’s anti-India, anti-Modi tirades endears him to the Pakistan ‘deep state’ like nothing else does. He knows this, and will continue to berate against India as part of his political survival strategy. The second thing that has worked is that there is still no clear candidate to replace Imran Khan either within the ruling party, or in the opposition. Even though the military is believed to be preparing for its Plan B, it doesn not seem to have a viable alternative, at least not anyone visible on the horizon. Many names are floating around, but none of them is acceptable just yet. They either do not have the stature, or they do not have the numbers or they do not entirely enjoy the trust of the deep state, and in many case none of the three attributes. While an in-house trick seems like the easiest thing to do, there is no one in PTI who can replace Imran Khan without splitting the party right down the middle. If push comes to shove, the ‘establishment’ could pick someone from either PTI or the opposition to do the job, but then the numbers game would demand support from the opposition. Essentially, that would mean some sort of national government, which sounds great in theory, but an unworkable proposition in practice.
Amid the Byzantine intrigues, Imran Khan is digging in his heels. He has already let it be known that he will not roll over and play dead and if things get out of hand. He will dissolve the National Assembly, a prospect that is unpalatable to most political players. What is more, he has tried to quell the rebellion in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by sacking three very powerful ministers. While this was a signal to both his party and his allies, he has doubled down on his support for the Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and declared that there is no question of replacing him. According to Imran Khan, if Buzdar is replaced then it will lead to a game of musical chairs in all of the provinces, and that is just not acceptable. Nevertheless, this is not going to go down well with the ‘establishment’. While the military is unlikely to wield the guillotine immediately, it will probably have started to sharpen the knives. If the drift in governance is not arrested over the next few months, patience will run out, as will the lease of life given to the Imran Khan government.