Imran Khan really matters!
By Shibdas Bhattacharjee
History has got repeated once again in Pakistan. The ouster of Imran Khan reminds the trade-mark of Pakistani politics and shaky democracy that has not allowed any democratic regime to complete its tenure to date. The way things evolved at midnight on April 9; opening of Pakistan Supreme Court and Islamabad High Court for the hearing the appeal made by political opponents of Imran Khan-led by Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan Muslim League leader and younger brother of former premier Nawaz Sharif; Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairperson of Pakistan Peoples’ Party; Maryam Nawaz, daughter of former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; Maulna Fazal-ur-Rahman, president of Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam Pakistan who took the oath of office of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan later on. How much will the new regime led by Shehbaz Sharif deliver for the people of Pakistan and contribute to bringing the staggering Pakistani economy back on track? There is legitimate doubt regarding these considering both the present state of Pakistan and the track record of all the Pakistani regimes so far.
However, this time things evolved really in a form in Pakistan. One of these is certainly deposed Prime Minister Imran Khan has neither been arrested nor sent into exile. So also, the ouster of a Prime Minister by the so-called democratic process through a no-confidence motion in the National Assembly has happened for the first time in Pakistan’s history. But a deeper insight into the existing matters in Pakistan exposes something really surprising. There are some related questions to that. Let me bring these into perspective:
Does Imran Khan really matter for Pakistan?
One cannot bypass this question considering the situation in Pakistan at the given time. There is no doubt in the fact that despite being deposed, Imran Khan is the most influential political personality in today’s Pakistan. Khan has not only kept intact his party; Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf after the political setback but proved to have a substantial support base in the masses. The protest rallies organised by the party under the leadership of Imran Khan have proved to be a great success. Khan getting such huge public support is something unprecedented in the history of Pakistan. The existing government under the leadership of Shehbaz Sharif does not seem to have any counter-strategy against this except for defaming Imran and the allegation that Khan has sabotaged democracy. Pakistan army and the police forces do not seem taking a stand against Imran. So also, the judiciary has not taken any stand against Imran on all these issues. The media in Pakistan is also divided on this issue. Naturally, Imran Khan is roaming throughout entire Pakistan without any restriction leading his mission against Sharifs, Bhuttos, Zardaris and other political satraps of Pakistan. This seems quite unusual in the context of Pakistan. Imran matters in today’s Pakistan. But what is strength of Imran? There are some important aspects related to this. Let me put these into perspective:
Imran and Pakistani Politics:
There are some obvious reasons why Imran Khan seems stronger against his political opponents. This aspect is quite obvious as the present regime in Pakistan led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif seems beleaguered against Imran. The fact is not that Shehbaz Sharif is leading a coalition government. Imran Khan too led a coalition government. In fact, during his tenure in office as Prime Minister, Imran remained under formidable pressure from his coalition partners. Here the reality is: the credibility question of political outfits led by Sharifs, Bhuttos, and Zardaris is down in comparison to Imran Khan. The political campaign of Imran before coming to power was to end political dynasty and corruption. In fact, like the military regimes, there are serious allegations of corruption against the civil administrations led by Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari and almost the entire anti-Imran political fraternity in Pakistan. Criminal cases, imprisonment and exile are the sagas of civil administrations. There are corruption charges against Imran Khan particularly by his wife Bushra Bibi and her friend Farah Khan who allegedly left Pakistan this April. Swiss bank revealed information about 600 accounts linked to 1,400 Pakistani citizens. The leaked account holders include several key politicians and generals, including the ex-ISI chief, General Akhtar Abdur Rahman Khan and some others. Auditor General of Pakistan (AGP) claimed that irregularities amounted to 40 billion Pakistani rupees ($226 million, €200 million) provided to Pakistan in the form of Covid-19 aid and vaccination programme. There are other allegations of corruption against Imran Khan.
One cannot bypass this question considering the situation in Pakistan at the given time. There is no doubt in the fact that despite being deposed, Imran Khan is the most influential political personality in today’s Pakistan. Khan has not only kept intact his party; Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf after the political setback but proved to have a substantial support base in the masses. The protest rallies organised by the party under the leadership of Imran Khan have proved to be a great success. Khan getting such huge public support is something unprecedented in the history of Pakistan
However, here the point is the way civil administrations in Pakistan reportedly alleged or found guilty in corruption issues have virtually got institutionalised in Pakistan. Imran maintained certain dignity in the perception of common Pakistanis as he evolved from a democratic movement with massive public support. Imran; a sports legend in Pakistan has a dominating presence in the perception of common Pakistanis. Since 2018, Imran tried to attack his political opponents based on enjoying power inherited by the dynasty and corruption charges against them. This helped him maintain his support base which is evident in the protest rally organised by him. Let me quote one of his recent statements made while addressing a huge gathering in Peshawar, “45 Saal Se Pakistani Kaum Mujhe Janti Hai. Kabhi Maine Kanun Torah? Mai Jab Cricket Khelta Tha, Kabhi Kisine Kaha Imran Khan Match Fixing Karta Hai?” (People of Pakistan know me for 45 years. Did I ever break the law? When I used to play cricket, did anybody say Imran Khan is involved in match-fixing?). This may sound rhetorical. But this is what Imran has tried to sell so far and that is what keeps him ahead of his political opponents. He has never allowed politics to overshadow his image as a Pakistani cricket legend.
Imran and Pakistan Army:
This is often perceived that behind the ouster of Imran Khan, the Pakistan army made a conspiracy. Shehbaz Sharif is a puppet of the Pakistan army. However, there is no doubt that the fact army played the most vital role in framing his political career. In 2018, the Pakistan army extended full support to Imran Khan. During his tenure as the Prime Minister, he built good chemistry with Pakistan’s military establishment. Imran’s strategy regarding the Pakistani army has been power-sharing and balancing. So also, he always displayed great respect for the army during his public speaking and media interactions. Good chemistry seemed between him and Qamar Javed Bajwa. Secunder Kermani, renowned BBC correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, stated in his report published on the website of the BBC Imran Khan: What led to charismatic Pakistan PM’s downfall “After coming to power, Mr Khan, by contrast, proudly proclaimed he and the army were on “one page” when it came to policy decisions.” The same report also stated “a rift began to appear between Gen Bajwa and Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who was widely seen as hoping to become the next army chief. Lt Gen Hameed was apparently so confident of his prospects that he had even previously told officials in neighbouring Afghanistan he would be the next man in charge of the army. However, one source close to the military said that while Lt Gen Hameed was seen as someone who could handle “dirty jobs” effectively, a reference to manipulating politicians or silencing critics, he was not seen as someone fit “to lead the institution”. The tension between the two powerful figures was noticed during a private interaction with influential commentators last summer. One journalist asked a question, only to be told by the head of the ISI that time had run out. In October, the dispute escalated and enveloped Imran Khan. Gen Bajwa was understood to want a new man in charge of the intelligence services, and the army announced a change in roles. Khan, however, had developed a close relationship with Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, resisted, apparently wanting him to stay on until elections had taken place – the assumption being that Lt Gen Hameed could once again help ensure Khan’s victory. The prime minister held off issuing a formal notification approving the change of posting for nearly three weeks before eventually relenting. This now visible cracks between the military and Imran Khan’s government emboldened the oppositions. Further differences have emerged between Khan and the army, too, notably on foreign policy. Although he defended visiting Moscow on the day Russian troops crossed into Ukraine and brusquely rejected attempts by Western officials to issue a condemnation of President Vladimir Putin’s behaviour, Gen Bajwa said last week that the invasion “must be stopped immediately”.
This ground zero report by the BBC journalist is undoubtedly very informative. However, another point should be taken into consideration is the standpoint of the Pakistan army after his ouster. Without the support of certain top officials of the Pakistan army, Imran cannot make a political campaign almost in the entire Pakistan. One factor that goes in his favour is certainly when he had to face a political setback, he did not point a finger at the army and seems to continue his pro-army standpoint. On April 14, Director General of Inter-Service Public Relations of Pakistan, General Babar Iftikhar, addressed a press meeting. This was the first formal press briefing by the Pakistani army after the ouster of Imran Khan stated three important points; 1. Not to drag the army into politics, 2. There was consensus among all the stakeholders of Pakistan including the army regarding Imran Khan’s Moscow visit and 3. All the army officers will retire as per schedule including Gen Bajwa and ISI chief Nadeem Anjum.
This indicates certain changes in the trajectory and policy of the Pakistan army. In fact, along with civil regime, the Pakistan army has failed on numerous fronts; including the Durand Line, the attack of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Afghan-Taliban. When I am writing this piece, escalation is going on in the Pak-Afghan border. Similarly, the army has drastically failed in its mission to keep the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) going as scheduled. Frequent attacks on army bases in Pakistan; be it Baluchistan, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and even Punjab declined the status of the Pakistani army to an unprecedented low. Imran measured public pulls correctly that the army has lost credibility and is not in a position to take stern action against him. In fact, during the campaign of Imran, people not only demonstrated against Sharifs, Bhuttos and Zardaris but against the Pakistan army as well. People seemed to hold placards “Pakistan army Murdabad, General Bajwa Murdabad”. This is unprecedented in Pakistan and as the subtle player of politics, Imran seemed to request people not to disrespect the army. After all, he will need the support of the army for his political survival; be Gen Bajwa, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed or somebody else.
Imran and social media:
In this sector, Imran is far ahead of his political opponents. His support base is the youth community and started them influencing through his presence on social media when he decided to try his luck in active politics. Way back in 2011, Imran started social media campaign. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was formed in 1996. The PTI had lost successive elections and managed to win in 2018. As far as social media machinery of Imran Khan is concerned, let me quote some lines from the article ‘Life in Social Media Bubbles of PTI’ by famous journalist Ramsha Jahangir published on August 16, 2020, in the reputed Daily ‘The Dawn’, “In Naya Pakistan, Twitter trends sometimes seem to matter more than governance. Perhaps this is why Khan’s internet-driven supporter base is so invested in leading a ‘positive’ perception campaign. Not too long ago, Khan’s PTI was mockingly called a ‘social media’ party. Today PTI seems to be having the last laugh — at least as far as social media presence is concerned. Now every major politician is trying to build an online persona and every party is using platforms like Twitter to propagate their narrative. But lately the ‘social media’ party has been clutching at straws to maintain the public’s “positive mood”. Although, now is the toughest time to tame. Since coming to power two years ago, the Khan-led administration has lurched from one crisis to another. Public discourse, hence, is critical amid perceptions of faltering governance in the face of a pandemic, a disgruntled media, a dampened economy, mismanagement of food and other crises, and revelations of infighting and discontentment brewing within the party. No matter how strong the PTI’s social media team may be at perception management, the cracks are starting to show everywhere — even online. With the addition of the wing, the PTI social media wing and the government’s digital machinery will now work separately. Although they still collaborate on hashtag campaigns and promotional content, the teams managing the government’s social media accounts are no longer working for the PTI. Still, the announcement of the wing has stirred several controversies, including concerns that the digital media wing has been recruited to exclusively defend the policies of Imran Khan’s administration. Surprisingly, for his own Twitter account, the prime minister does not have a digital team vetting content. Despite being the first Pakistani premier to use social media, and one of the most followed leaders in the world, Khan’s tweets as prime minister are sometimes written and, almost always sent out, by his aides. These content creators, invited from across Pakistan, were given ‘special access’ by the government to attend the event free of cost. The biggest breakthrough for the content creators was when the prime minister held a meeting with leading digital media specialists and YouTubers earlier this year. Although the interaction barely touched upon the challenges of digital media, the meeting was successful in winning the trust of digital influencers. Doing what they do the best, the digital content creators then shot explainer videos and wrote social media posts for their followers to share their experience of meeting the country’s prime minister. PTI, being the pioneer of digital politics, also introduced coordinated trends. A coordinated influence campaign is artificially amplified, wherein users give the false impression that there is genuine grassroots support or opposition for a particular group or narrative. Today, hundreds of accounts operate under the PTI brand. Dozens of teams within teams coordinate over WhatsApp and on other social media platforms to run campaigns.”
In the speech I have quoted earlier about match-fixing, Imran stated in the Peshawar protest rally, “Ye Social Media Ka Pakistan Hai, 6 Crore Pakistan Me SmartPhone Hai Shehbaz Sharif Ye Jo Tum Karwai Kar Rahe Ho, Hamare Pakistan Ke Naujawano Ki Social Media Ke Upar Jo Crackdown Kar Rahe Ho, Kaan Kholke Sunlo-Jisdin Humne Call De Di To Tumhe Chhupne Ki Jagah Nahi Milegi.” (This Pakistan is of social media. There are 6 crore smartphones in Pakistan. Shehbaz Sharif as you are restricting social media accounts of our youths, listen carefully, the day I shall give the call, you will not find a hiding place.”). This shows the changes that happened in Pakistan.
Imran measured public pulls correctly that the army has lost credibility and is not in a position to take stern action against him. In fact, during the campaign of Imran, people not only demonstrated against Sharifs, Bhuttos and Zardaris but against the Pakistan army as well
This is very much loud and clear that Imran Khan has built the strategy for the days ahead. 1. Continuing campaign on foreign influence in Pakistan’s domestic politics. 2. Use of social media tool and 3. Buttering religious sentiment. In the same political gathering, Imran has stated, “Pakistan Ka Matlab Kya? La ilaha illa Allah. La ilaha illa Allah hame Gairat Deti Hai. La ilaha illa Allah Ek Wada Hai. Ye Waqt Ab Aa Gaya Hai Ki Hum La ilaha illa Allah par Khare Ho.” (What is the meaning of Pakistan? La ilaha illa Allah Pakistan which means there is no other god than Allah. The time has come we need to take an oath on there is no other god than Allah. We must stand on La ilaha illa Allah.
This means that Imran Khan believes that he has already set the agenda but the evolving situation in Pakistan shows a certain change. Has this brought for him? The same remains to be seen.
Shibdas Bhattacharjee is an Assam-based columnist and strategic affairs analyst. He writes his article under a specific category of “Sagacious Beholding.” The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://www.strategicaffairsindia.in